Editorial: Donald Trump’s focus on infrastructure should accelerate KCI discussions

News that Kansas City International may be in line for federal cash is important, but the area still needs to decide if it wants to renovate the airport or build something new.
News that Kansas City International may be in line for federal cash is important, but the area still needs to decide if it wants to renovate the airport or build something new. The Kansas City Star

Kansas City’s airport has landed on a short list of potential infrastructure projects under consideration by the Trump White House.

As The Star reported this week, a list containing 50 projects that might be paid for through a national infrastructure bill is now making the rounds. The $1 billion Kansas City International Airport plan is No. 26 on that list.

Other projects include bridges, highways, rail and a couple of other airports.

Kansas Citians should be happy about the news, and city officials now should move quickly. If the president comes calling, City Hall and the Aviation Department should be prepared to seek whatever federal funds might be offered for KCI improvements. It would be foolish to turn down Washington’s money for help at KCI, whether the city wants to build a brand-new terminal or renovate the existing structure.

Of course, questions remain about what, exactly, will become of the draft documents detailing major infrastructure projects.

This process remains in the earliest stages, and the list appears to have been compiled by consultants working with public officials, then sent to the Trump transition team. This isn’t unusual. Cities and states compile wish lists all the time, and the Trump plan may simply reflect a call for ideas, not an official blueprint.

More generally, President Donald Trump’s infrastructure plan remains a work in progress, to say the least. The president has hinted at spending $1 trillion or so on building projects, but he hasn’t said how he’ll come up with the money. Republicans in Congress appear deeply skeptical about the added spending, particularly since they want to cut taxes, raise spending for the military and balance the budget.

Eight years ago, the GOP called the Democrats’ public works spending “porkulus.” It may take some time for Republicans to find an alternative label.

Even if the $1 trillion plan becomes reality, it isn’t clear exactly how Washington could steer money to KCI. Washington rarely pays for major terminal work. In most cases, airlines and their passengers pay for terminal upgrades, not taxpayers.

The Trump administration could make an exception for KCI, of course, sending the city millions in taxpayer dollars for a new terminal. But that would anger other cities, which would want the same consideration. That complicates the politics.

But the biggest hang-up isn’t really federal money that might or might not be available. The fact is, Kansas City is still unsure whether it wants a new single terminal, a refurbished three-terminal setup or some combination of the two.

Federal money doesn’t solve that riddle. The main argument about KCI involves convenience, jobs, progress. Once the community reaches a consensus on those issues, finding the cash will be less of a hurdle.

The Trump announcement is a reminder of that. If the White House called tomorrow and offered $1 billion for KCI, what would we say? Do we want a new terminal or renovations? No one knows.

Dozens of Kansas City leaders are privately mulling that question right now. KCI’s presence on a White House infrastructure list should accelerate those discussions, with a goal of choosing one option or the other by the end of the year.