Prospects for building a modern, convenient and affordable new terminal at Kansas City International Airport have brightened considerably.
That’s a huge step forward in the long-lasting debate over what to do with an aging airport that gives many visitors — and many residents who travel — a poor image of our bustling, progressive community.
Rest easy, skeptics. Nothing was settled during a public hearing Tuesday at City Hall. Months of analysis and debate are still ahead. Eventually, the public must be allowed to make the final decision on whether to issue bonds for any construction project at KCI. The City Council correctly agreed to that stipulation in 2014.
But in a blunt report that built upon months of study by people with decades of experience in the aviation industry, the airlines at KCI as well as the consultants working for the city agreed on a key issue:
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Kansas City should focus on what it would take to construct a new terminal and, for now, stop looking at major renovations to the current terminals.
The door is opening wider to the possibility that Kansas City is going to have an airport that will use its space more wisely. It will not cram travelers into tight holding areas, as the current KCI does, and it will offer sufficient amenities — eating, shopping, battery-charging — especially for passengers with long layovers. And it will have superior technological features.
A representative of the airlines told Mayor Sly James and City Council members that they now think it would be more costly to upgrade the current terminals and provide the modern amenities many travelers expect at big city airports. In addition, a new airport could provide more customer conveniences than improvements to existing terminals. A final recommendation is expected by May 2016.
In response, James seemed ready to get in campaign mode for a new terminal. He announced his intent to emphasize the message that no city tax revenues go into airport financing. Airlines, travelers and federal grants provide the funding. To his credit, James put together a group of public citizens — in 2014 they also recommended a single terminal — and then backed the idea of getting the city and the airlines in the same room to plan for the future.
Their new report said that a design team had initially examined 27 different ways to either renovate KCI’s terminals or build a new terminal. They slimmed that list down to the two best ideas in each category, then looked for pros and cons.
The preliminary findings concluded that either of the plans for a new terminal beat out the major renovation packages by every measuring stick. That included affordability, customer convenience, efficiency of operations, technology and the ease of construction.
Enter the doubters.
Council members John Sharp and Scott Taylor spoke up for many residents who love the convenience of being able to drop off and pick up passengers at the current KCI.
The public eventually must be able to examine specific designs and see a line-by-line construction budget, which is now only in the ballpark of being less than $1 billion.
Supporters of a new terminal also must provide more evidence that it would be convenient for travelers. Factors include proximity of parking and passenger drop-offs as well as the distance from a centralized entry to gates.
Finally, city officials must be careful to ensure that the airlines don’t call every shot on this project. If a new terminal is constructed, it must accommodate the constantly changing world of travel.
Given Tuesday’s developments, James and the new City Council members who take office Aug. 1 must stay focused on delivering a cost-efficient design for a new terminal.