Government & Politics

Single-terminal KCI now up to airlines, Kansas City voters

Plans for a single-terminal airport remain intact. For that, thanks (or blame) can be assigned to Mayor Sly James’ KCI task force, which voted for a single terminal last week.

It was an important vote. The task force’s support for a one-terminal airport won’t decide the question, but a “no” vote would have killed it — James could hardly reject the findings of his own hand-picked committee.

At the same time, the task force decision essentially transfers responsibility for the project away from politicians and puts it firmly in the hands of the airlines and, eventually, Kansas City’s voters.

The airlines are first. Because their customers will have to pay most of the cost of any improvement scheme at Kansas City International Airport, the companies will have to sign off on whatever funding mechanism is used — higher rents, higher ticket fees, higher parking costs or some combination of those and other tools.

If the airlines can’t agree on the new terminal’s size, cost and design, a new facility simply won’t happen.

But the airlines may be the easier hurdle. Passenger costs at KCI are relatively low compared with other airports, suggesting some additional levies aren’t completely out of the question. And it’s possible a new terminal could actually reduce the airlines’ labor, equipment and security costs, potentially softening the impact of higher fees.

That leaves voters, who are likely to be a much tougher sell.

At a starting point, let’s remember many Kansas Citians rarely or never use the airport. They’ll have to be convinced that a single terminal would bring ancillary benefits such as construction jobs and new revenue.

That’s essentially the same argument the city used to expand the Bartle Hall convention center more than two decades ago. The relatively disappointing performance of that facility may make it harder to claim indirect benefits from a new terminal.

The most intense opposition is expected to come from airport users, who prefer the convenience that dozens of screeners and expensive checkpoints provide. Designers will have to prove they can replicate that convenience or the project’s chances at the polls will dwindle.

So single-terminal supporters must thread a thin needle: a modern, efficient, convenient and low-cost design that satisfies travelers, airlines, federal security personnel and airport workers.

Oh, and one that pays for itself.

Airport boosters have some time. The November 2016 election seems about right.

But they don’t have forever. The task force, it turns out, had the easy job — the hard choices at KCI are still ahead.

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