Steve Paul

Steve Paul: Is the plan to renovate KCI really over?

Holiday travelers at Kansas City International Airport’s Terminal B.
Holiday travelers at Kansas City International Airport’s Terminal B. jtoyoshiba@kcstar.com

Maybe she’d been listening, or maybe she was blinded by her own foregone conclusion.

But an hourlong presentation on the relative drawbacks of a major renovation of Kansas City International Airport did not move the needle for City Council member Teresa Loar. She just couldn’t get her brain around the thing she didn’t want to hear.

Once again, consultants working on the planning process to upgrade the airport, in a report to the council’s Aviation Committee on Tuesday, were pretty certain that various major renovation schemes were not only inefficient but would cost more than building a new, vastly improved terminal. Either way, the city is facing an investment of $1 billion, more or less, a cost that would be borne mostly by the airlines and airport users, not by city taxpayers.

But, but, but.... Loar, who had made smirky faces during the consultant’s report, wanted to know why the two Truman Sports Complex stadiums could be expanded and the existing terminals at KCI could not. Talk about apples and oranges. Loar’s rhetorical question showed a lack of understanding of some of the fundamental details of airport operations. The horseshoe-shaped terminals, for example, can only be widened so far before impeding the needs of aircraft maneuverability, de-icing upgrades and other operational requirements, according to that day’s consultant and others before him.

Loar had pulled a late stunt in this nearly three-year-old planning process by inviting a Kansas City architectural firm to devise a renovation plan for the terminals. At first, it looked so inviting and so reasonable.

It also looked somewhat like an earlier plan that had been put forward when a citizens’ advisory group was gathering evidence and studying the options. Helix Architecture of Kansas City in conjunction with Corgan, an airport design firm, had offered a major renovation concept based on preserving and improving two of KCI’s three horseshoe-shaped terminals.

But as with the Helix-Corgan concept and other feasible renovation schemes the city and airline consultants had already considered, Loar’s pet project came up short for several considerable reasons, Lou Salomon, of AvAirPros, testified Tuesday.

Loar and other critics of the airport improvement project pretend that they’re speaking for the people. Sure a lot of local folks love the way the airport works today — and it does work in many ways for a lot of us.

But it also fails on many counts — when bad weather wreaks havoc on airline schedules, when you’re looking to charge your phone or laptop, when, oh-oh, you’re all of a sudden in a long security line you didn’t plan for. Or when you’re on a business trip to Kansas City and wonder whether the dingy atmosphere you’ve just deplaned into was some kind of an omen.

Salomon suggested the city would be far better off by planning for the future rather than limping along for another decade. His points about baggage systems, flexibility and a trend toward larger aircraft were well taken. Will KCI traffic really grow by 40 percent by 2030, as airline projections supposedly suggest? Maybe you could quibble with that number, but where’s the evidence that it won’t?

Loar and other critics would do well to rein in their spurious arguments and focus instead on the real question facing Kansas Citians and civic leaders.

Reeves Wiedeman of Helix put it this way: “What does Kansas City need as a community? Do we need something new, or do we like the idea that we’re preserving part of our past and using it to create a new future?”

In other words, which approach to improving the airport, regardless of the relative costs, will say the most and the best about Kansas City and its self-image?

Even a populist could agree that a city deserves to aim high, take risks and build boldly. It did that 40-odd years ago when it built the brilliantly conceived KCI (and the sports complex and Kemper Arena). And the city should also build smartly. Kansas City has not always done that.

The KCI improvement project presents city leaders with a chance to prove that an ultimate solution was based on intelligent decision making, not on emotional or nostalgic harangues.

I’ve been in favor all along of a renovation/preservation solution. Like Loar, I really want to be sufficiently convinced that it makes no sense. I’m not there yet, but I can see that day coming.

Steve Paul: paul@kcstar.com, @sbpaul

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