Government & Politics

Mayor Sly James pulls plug on 2016 election on KCI improvements

KCI proposals explained in four minutes

Kansas City Star reporter Eric Adler explains the details and costs of four proposed improvements to Kansas City International Airport, built in 1972. Two renovation ideas and two new terminal proposals are covered in this explanatory video.
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Kansas City Star reporter Eric Adler explains the details and costs of four proposed improvements to Kansas City International Airport, built in 1972. Two renovation ideas and two new terminal proposals are covered in this explanatory video.

All the appeals from city leaders and Kansas City’s airlines for a new single terminal to modernize Kansas City International Airport could not generate liftoff with voters.

So Mayor Sly James said Tuesday there will be no local election this year on the future of KCI.

The airlines had said they would finance the project and asked the City Council last week for an August election on airport bonds to make it a reality. But recent polling showed less than 40 percent of voters were supportive.

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James, while clearly disappointed, admitted that it was appropriate to “press pause on the conversation for the time being.”

“It’s clear that the city is not ready to move on or to move forward with the KCI conversation at this point,” James said at a news conference. “In fact, less than 40 percent believe that it is a good idea to move forward with a new terminal with the airlines paying for it along with the airport at this time.”

Kansas City Mayor Sly James and City Councilwoman Jolie Justus, chair of the council's Airport Committee, discussed the decision not to seek a local election this year on airport revenue bonds. That means nothing will happen any time soon with a p

James said he believes the studies over the past three years have shown conclusively that the city does need a new single-terminal airport and that it could benefit the airlines and passengers with more flights, added amenities, more convenient gates, efficiencies, and security and technology upgrades.

He said the airlines had a hard time understanding the Kansas City political situation, since most cities are clamoring for their airports and the airlines to build new terminals.

City leaders and airport representatives said repeatedly that this project would not involve general taxpayer dollars, and it would not result in significantly higher airline ticket prices. But the polling showed voters have not bought into the airlines’ vision or message.

“Voters will not be asked to approve anything related to the airport in 2016,” James said, adding that the city will instead focus on other priorities, such as infrastructure, reducing the crime rate and improving schools.

A decision about the future of KCI has been one of the most contentious issues to confront the City Council and the public in the past five years. While many business and civic leaders and airport users say the city urgently needs to upgrade the 43-year-old airport, others say the current facility is one of the most convenient in the country and they don’t want major changes.

Just a few years ago, Southwest Airlines executives had questioned the need for a new, nearly $1 billion terminal. But over the past two years, a leadership team of representatives from Southwest and other major airlines, plus Kansas City aviation officials, have studied the options. Over the past nine months, they have become increasingly convinced that a new terminal would actually be cheaper and better than renovating the existing terminals.

Last week, Steve Sisneros, director of airport affairs for Southwest Airlines, told the council that all the airlines serving KCI supported a new single terminal, estimated to cost $964 million in 2015 dollars, and would help pay for it. He said they did not support renovation and would not help finance a remodeling approach.

And Sisneros said the airlines wanted to move quickly to seek voter approval in August for new airport bonds, because costs will only go up the longer the city waits.

In a statement Tuesday, Southwest Airlines, which provides the most service at KCI, said: “While we are disappointed with as much work that has gone into the terminal proposal, we understand that the Mayor and City Council are responsible to Kansas City voters. Southwest will continue to work with the city as our partner to provide the best air service and customer service for Kansas City travelers.”

Global Strategy Group polled 800 likely Kansas City voters April 25-28. The poll was paid for by Progress KC, a campaign committee of civic and business leaders.

While 63 percent of those polled said they thought the city was headed in the right direction in general (and only 23 percent said the city was on the wrong track), only 39 percent said a new KCI terminal was the city’s next big priority, while 51 percent disagreed.

The same poll showed 84 percent of likely voters viewed the existing KCI favorably, versus 11 percent unfavorably.

Many people who have studied this issue intensively have come to a different conclusion.

City Councilwoman Jolie Justus, who chairs the council’s Airport Committee, said at the news conference that she started her task with an open mind. But over the past nine months, she’s come to conclude “that KCI no longer meets the needs of our two biggest customers, both the airlines and our air travelers.”

She also said the construction project “would be a monumental public infrastructure project right here in our community at no expense to the taxpayer.”

Justus said it was difficult to press pause on a plan with so many upsides, but the city has to get this right and the conversation must continue.

Joe Reardon, president of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce, noted Tuesday that the chamber has endorsed the new single-terminal concept and agrees with the airlines that it is the best way for them to increase their business in Kansas City.

He said the chamber respects the public’s opinion “but hopes the dialogue continues.”

Pat Dujakovich, president of the Greater Kansas City AFL-CIO, said it was clear the election would have been a guaranteed loser. But he lamented that.

“People don’t understand it’s paid by the airlines,” he said. “We’re turning down $1 billion of work.”

He said he couldn’t think of any other city “where organized labor has to try to force a vote to get an airport paid for by the airlines.”

But Dan Coffey, spokesman for a group of Kansas City residents who opposed the new terminal concept and cost, said city leaders finally woke up to reality.

“They were just so far out of bounds on this,” Coffey said. “Voters have power.”

Coffey said this doesn’t mean the city just has to accept the status quo at the airport, but it should be willing to consider creative modifications to the existing terminals and not push something that the public clearly doesn’t want.

The Star’s Ian Cummings contributed to this report.

Lynn Horsley: 816-226-2058, @LynnHorsley