The terminals at Kansas City International Airport can’t be sustained in their current states. It’s time to replace them.
All public structures — bridges, schools, arenas, airports — deteriorate. Timely repairs and additions can extend a structure’s lifespan, but eventually, all public improvements must be rebuilt, replaced or torn down.
The trick is knowing when to make a change. It would be foolish to build a new airport every five years, but equally foolish to pile on the duct tape and bailing wire to keep a terminal in use for 100 years.
How do we know that now is the time for a new KCI? The past provides a clue.
Kansas City’s Municipal Airport, just north of downtown, was dedicated in 1927. It was considered a bit of a risk. Some city officials, convinced people weren’t meant to fly, resisted its construction. They were outvoted. Aviator Charles Lindbergh helped cut the ribbon that August.
Millions of people flew into and out of Municipal Airport over the next several decades, impressed by its design and, yes, convenience. But by the early 1960s, city officials knew Municipal was out-of-date, with runways that were too short and terminal spaces that were often crowded and inconvenient.
They launched the campaign to build a new commercial airport and terminal north of the river. Voters overwhelmingly approved the idea.
Municipal lasted 45 years as the city’s main airport. Now, KCI is 45 years old.
The conclusion seems clear: Changes in travel habits, the airline industry, the needs of customers and the challenges of maintenance all point to a top-to-bottom overhaul of commercial airport facilities roughly twice a century.
Remember, 11 million people used the airport last year. That’s easily three times more than the attendance for the Chiefs and Royals combined.
And the airport must operate all day, seven days a week, in blizzards, storms, hot weather and cold. Getting people to and from their destinations, with their luggage intact and their comfort and safety protected, is an intricate challenge. Airport terminals wear out pretty quickly.
Even opponents of a new terminal concede this. They argue instead for “extensive renovations” to fix the problems at KCI because that would be cheaper.
The terminal has been renovated before, and again recently: A $250 million project to replace windows, floors, jet bridges and other infrastructure was finished in 2004. Now, 13 years later, the airlines say the terminals are largely obsolete.
Another renovation would cost $350 million. But it’s good money after bad: A $350 million renovation that extends the terminal’s life for another 15 years equates to an average annual cost of $23 million. A new $1 billion terminal that lasts 50 years costs $20 million annually, not including interest.
And what happens when those 15 years are up? You still need a new terminal.
But a new terminal might cost $1.5 billion or more in 2032. And the airlines — which have rejected the renovation approach — may have decided to reduce service or leave entirely in the interim, pushing those costs onto fewer and fewer passengers.
Kansas City voters can choose a different path. They can do so with no risk to their checkbooks. Taxpayers who don’t use the airport won’t pay for it. In fact, many of the users live outside the city limits, and they’ll help pay the cost.
A new terminal will create hundreds of construction jobs, and those workers will pay earnings taxes. It’s possible the new terminal will generate additional employment in shops and restaurants, further bumping the revenue take.
A new terminal will also mean a cleaner, safer environment for the people who work at the facility. That’s important.
Like many Kansas Citians, we were upset with the chaotic process for picking a developer and putting the terminal on the ballot. The attempt to push through a no-bid contract for Burns & McDonnell was a mistake.
Edgemoor Infrastructure’s proposed design seems skimpy on some details, and that’s a disappointment. We also hoped the city and the company would have completed a memorandum of understanding by now, outlining the terms of the parties’ agreements.
If voters reject the new terminal, though, the city will have to go through this process again. No one wants that.
During the past three weeks, The Star has outlined the case for a new terminal at Kansas City International Airport, fulfilling a commitment to examine the issues surrounding the Nov. 7 vote.
We’ve made the case that the current airport is less convenient than it should be. The terminal is a security challenge in a post-9/11 world. The facility is dark and unwelcoming, hurting business recruitment and leaving visitors with a poor impression of our community.
Now we add a fourth reason for a new terminal: The current terminals have reached the end of their useful lives.
We have a developer who has promised inclusion and transparency. We have a $1 billion project, paid for by users. And we have a chance to boost the entire metro area by building a 21st-century airport.
Kansas City looked to the future in 1927 and 1972. We must do so again by voting yes on Nov. 7.