Editorial: Early stumbles shouldn’t doom KCI terminal project

Kansas City is making important progress in the effort to build a new airport terminal.

A month of confusion, false starts and government by press release has given way to thoughtful discussions about how the project should be structured. The city is moving toward a reasonable schedule, greater transparency and a list of options for Kansas City residents to consider.

We support a new terminal at Kansas City International Airport. And we think voters should consider the question in November.

Several new developments make both outcomes more likely now than they were a week ago:

▪ The entire City Council is now fully engaged in drafting and approving the request for proposals for the project, a document known as an RFP.

The first RFP was clearly rushed. It seemed designed to help just one bidder: Burns & McDonnell, the Kansas City-based engineering firm that first proposed a privately financed terminal project.

Potential competitors worried about the tight three-week time frame for alternative proposals and the city’s informal offer to let Burns & McDonnell match any other proposal for the airport.

Outside advisers, hired by the council, echoed those concerns. The so-called right of first refusal for Burns & McDonnell was quickly dropped.

But the June 20 deadline remained intact. So City Councilman Quinton Lucas offered a proposal ordering City Manager Troy Schulte to re-draft the RFP to bring it in line with the recommendations of outside counsel.

Those changes, including a later deadline for submitting plans, will be considered by the City Council this week.

These are all commendable efforts. The unilateral approach of Schulte and Mayor Sly James has given way to a council-centric approach, with clear requirements and a reasonable deadline.

▪ A public financing option will be explored.

City Councilwoman Katheryn Shields has offered a measure that would put on the November ballot a terminal proposal using public bonds rather than private financing to pay for the project.

Exploring public financing is important. Taxpayers are off the hook for any improvements at KCI no matter what happens, but airport revenue bonds, paid for by users and the airlines, might be cheaper and safer than a private financing scheme.

Still, there may be advantages to private financing, too. The City Council has time to fully debate this question, with side-by-side comparisons, before committing to either approach.

▪ The airlines are speaking up.

In an email to city officials, airline representatives urged a November vote on the terminal project. It was welcome news — the airlines have been far too quiet in the KCI debate.

The general outlines of the airport discussion haven’t really changed since The Star first urged a November vote. KCI needs a new terminal, costing about $1 billion, paid for through user fees of about $85 million annually.

We’ve argued for an open process designed to reassure voters that their interests are protected. The City Council is heading in the right direction, and a new airport is moving closer into view.