Dave Helling

Don’t blame City Hall for KCI terminal drama. Here’s who is really in charge

Conversations with city leaders after the approval of an airport terminal deal have revealed new and important truths about the project.

The first? The airlines are running the show.

Kansas City’s commentariat — Mayor Sly James, other elected officials, writers, consultants, bureaucrats, lobbyists — has spent two years arguing fiercely over a new terminal at Kansas City International Airport.

Who will build it? How much will it cost? How can we borrow money for it? Who should be in charge? Will voters approve it? Why is it taking so long?

We now know those arguments were mostly a sideshow. There was only one important question: What do the airlines want?

The airlines’ dominant role at KCI should have been more clear in 2016, when they switched from supporting terminal renovation to backing a new facility. Some City Council members squawked at that conclusion, but it was wasted energy for a now-obvious reason: The airlines were going to pay for the thing.

The carriers’ 2016 endorsement of a new terminal instantly and permanently changed the future at KCI. Any chance of renovation died a year before voters went to the polls.

You know what came next: secret meetings, no-bid contracts, backroom maneuvering, poor polling, a public vote and delays. But all that chatter, well chronicled here, disguised the reality that Kansas Citians were secondary. Only the airlines mattered.

If you talk with city officials about the airlines’ role at KCI, their eyes will roll back in their heads. The airlines were too busy, too competitive, too distracted, too arrogant to reach a deal in a timely manner. They wouldn’t speak publicly. The goalposts moved. Outside interests muddled the discussions.

City officials bitterly resent the suggestion that their screw-ups caused delays at KCI. Progress, they insist, became possible only when the airlines made up their minds.

They are correct.

Additionally, we now know those delays caused deep confusion about the project.

Americans have always loved good conspiracy theories, rooted in ill-informed speculation and misinformation. They particularly love goofy explanations when facts are hard to find, or hard to understand.

The delays at KCI fed this dynamic like sunshine, water and high-quality manure. For months, my in-box has been filled with dark KCI ruminations bearing only a slight relation to reality. The mysteries of public finance were a bridge too far for many.

The whisper campaign was relentless. Of course, reporters who failed to pursue these fringe theories were denounced as part of the conspiracy.

City Hall compounded the problem by stepping in the mud more than once. Example? Whoever thought it was a good idea to borrow from the Water Department needs a refresher course in politics.

Some have demanded another public vote, claiming residents were lied to. If lying invalidated the outcome of an election, Donald Trump would have been gone long ago, but in fact, the KCI price tag went up only because the airlines wanted it to. Had they wanted the $1 billion structure voters were promised, they could have had it.

A messy airport decision wasn’t inevitable. But the airlines’ silence, coupled with political missteps and the irresponsibility of the fringe, all but guaranteed the debacle that followed.

Let’s hope the that pattern doesn’t continue during the next four years of terminal construction at KCI.

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Dave Helling has covered politics in Kansas and Missouri for four decades. He has worked in television news, and is a regular contributor to local broadcast programs. Helling writes editorials for the Star, and a weekly column. He was awarded the 2018 ASNE Burl Osborne award for editorial leadership.