Editorial: Competitive process for a new terminal at KCI is a no-brainer

Kansas City Mayor Sly James was asked this week on KCUR if other firms were interested in bidding on a new single terminal at Kansas City International Airport.

He repeated his answer three times: “No. No. No.”

And then he said this: “Nobody has come to my office and said, ‘Mayor, we have an idea to do this.’ Nobody has said, ‘Let’s go to lunch and talk about this.’ 

A day later, one of the biggest airport design firms anywhere did exactly that. On Thursday, AECOM sent city officials a letter. A senior vice president said AECOM “would welcome the opportunity to discuss further with you and to participate in a competitive process.”

The Star is aware of another Midwestern firm also eager to engage. In fact, experts say they would be surprised if at least six firms wouldn’t raise their hands on such a significant project — if given the chance.

Sources have told The Star that some firms around the country may have been hesitant to put forth their own proposals because they think the skids are greased for the hometown company, Burns & McDonnell. They may be holding back because getting in the way of that train might cause problems if those companies ever want to work here again.

Also, despite what the mayor says, the companies never were formally asked to step forward if they were interested.

How can you blame them for thinking that the firm with the home-field advantage has a lock on project? All the talk at City Hall for the last couple of weeks has been about Burns & McDonnell. The council is said to be “fast-tracking” a decision on whether to go with that engineering company. Last week, the council voted to spend up to $475,000 for outside legal counsel to evaluate — what else? — the Burns & McDonnell proposal.

Everything, it seems, revolves around Burns & Mac.

But to hear representatives from other firms talk about it, you bet there’s interest in a nearly $1 billion airport project. Are you kidding? That would rank as the biggest capital improvement project in city history, or close to it, and of course major firms are interested.

Now, with AECOM’s letter in hand, we know that’s the case.

It goes without saying that a competitive process could result in substantial savings — and perhaps an even better terminal than the one Burns & McDonnell envisions.

All this strikes us as a no-brainer: We need to find out just how much interest is out there. In the design-build industry, such an instrument exists in the form of an “expression of interest.” This amounts to a brief statement from a firm indicating its capacity for handling major projects and interest in pursuing the work.

The mayor and City Council should slow down just enough to formally solicit such statements and see what emerges. They could set a three-week deadline that wouldn’t interfere with the existing timetable. If nothing shows up, then let’s proceed with a hard look at the Burns & McDonnell plan.

Industry experts say taking that step might stave off future litigation from other firms frustrated with Kansas City’s bid-free procurement process. Such litigation could tie up the airport project for years.

Let’s drop a hook in the water and see who bites. Let’s buy down litigation risk. Too much is on the line to do otherwise.