Count one big, nonbinding vote for a single terminal airport.
The new terminal recommendation Wednesday from a citizens’ task force looking at the future of Kansas City International Airport challenges a vocal public sentiment: Keep 42-year-old KCI and its three horseshoe terminals much the way they are.
The task force’s decision adds another dimension to what is likely to remain a fierce debate, with little consensus, for at least another year.
“We still face an uphill climb to convince the public that we need a new terminal,” said Councilman Ed Ford, who has long supported the new construction plan.
Nineteen of the 24 members of the panel voted in favor of a new, single terminal. They said it would prove a more cost-effective 40- to 50-year investment than major renovations that might only extend the existing terminals’ life for 10 or 15 years. They also said it would address more of the airport’s many deficiencies.
“Our group has spoken,” group co-chairman Dave Fowler announced. “We have a large consensus to recommend alternative number three” (the new terminal).
The KCI Terminal Advisory Group’s recommendation intends to guide the city toward one of the most important civic building projects in a generation. The advice echoes a city Aviation Department concept, but the single-terminal idea so far has been rejected by many who love the convenient parking-to-gate distances in the existing terminals.
Fowler said the group went through a detailed evaluation that found a new terminal offered the most adaptability and flexibility for the future, could create the best gateway impression of the city, would involve the least construction disruptions and could still be a very convenient airport.
Wednesday’s announcement is likely just the start of what could be a two-year process to reach a more detailed plan. The Aviation Department and the airlines that use the airport have pledged to collaborate on the best, most affordable plan to move the airport forward by April 30, 2016.
The City Council has promised to take any final airport improvement and financing method to city residents for a vote.
Mayor Sly James said the task force’s methodical approach should reassure the public that the airport planning process was not “being rammed down someone’s throat.” He said he had no idea what the task force members’ positions were before he appointed them, except for Kevin Koster, a marketing executive adamantly opposed to a single terminal.
Koster said he abstained from voting at the end because he felt the task force lacked enough cost information to adequately compare options.
He said the task force’s decision was just the first step. The next step will be crucial, he said, as airlines and the Aviation Department prepare more detailed plans, cost estimates and a financing method. Then Kansas City residents will vote.
The public’s acceptance of any airport plan, Koster said, will depend on what comes next.
“In this next phase, if the public has a lot of involvement, then whatever comes out of it would, I think, have a positive outcome,” he said. “But on the other hand, if the people feel as if it’s just the same old same old, it won’t.”
The task force co-chairmen were Fowler, a retired financial executive, and Bob Berkebile, an architect who had a role in the original KCI design. The group also included former Unified Government Mayor Joe Reardon, former City Councilman Bill Skaggs and a mix of lawyers, business executives, people involved with nonprofits and philanthropy, representatives of several community groups and an inner-city real estate broker.
The group concluded that doing nothing was not an option because the airport has too much crumbling infrastructure, aging operating systems and insufficient gate and security space.
The choices before the group: major upgrades to two or three existing terminals; a new central passenger screening area to connect the existing terminals; or a new single terminal — more expensive but a solution to more of the existing airport’s problems.
Task force member John Fierro said he came to believe that the new terminal was the best long-term solution. Renovations would also be expensive, he said, “but then probably in about 10 years we would still have the same conversation.”
Fierro acknowledged that many people urged the group not to make major airport changes and not to recommend something exorbitantly expensive. But he said many of those people were also infrequent travelers.
“When you talk to individuals in the business community who are traveling on a very regular basis, I heard the complete opposite,” Fierro said. “It was like, ‘You know the airport doesn’t provide enough amenities.’
Jim Heeter, president and CEO of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce, applauded the recommendation but emphasized the chamber does not want a “Taj Mahal.” He said the chamber’s full support will be contingent on a final plan, design and prudent financing mechanism.
Single-terminal advocates thought the task force’s conclusion would carry clout. Those who prefer the existing design dismissed its importance.
Dan Coffey, who led a petition drive to make sure Kansas City residents get a vote on airport improvements, has argued a new terminal would be an expensive boondoggle. He said Wednesday’s task force recommendation was “rigged from the start” because many members had at least an informal relationship with City Hall.
“I don’t think what happened today means anything, really,” Coffey said. “They didn’t listen to the public who showed up at the meetings.”
Coffey said he’ll be far more interested in what the airlines recommend as an affordable, workable approach.
U.S. Rep. Sam Graves represents the district that includes KCI and favors the current airport configuration. In a statement Wednesday, he said he remains convinced “that we are better served working to maintain the convenience and accessibility of our airport.”
Veteran political consultant Jeff Roe said that in 15 years of polling he’s never seen so many people unified on an issue as they are preferring the existing KCI terminal configuration. Wednesday’s recommendation doesn’t change that, he said.
“There’s still a big sales job in front of them to make that happen,” Roe said of the new terminal.
Ford agreed, and pointed out a political dimension to this issue. The current City Council majority has strongly favored a new terminal. But six of the 13 council members are term-limited out. The next council elections are in April and June 2015, which may arrive before the airport discussion is resolved.
“I’d like it to be with this council, but I don’t believe it will be,” Ford said. “This may be one of those issues where it might be easier to convince the public in two to three years.”