When I started the Save KCI blog at SaveKCI.org in early 2013, it was as much to oppose the lack of honesty coming from the city, and the lack of journalism coming from The Star, as it was to “save” my favorite airport — at the time one of the highest-rated airports in the country.
The Kansas City Aviation Department had just revealed its latest proposal to replace the three terminals at Kansas City International Airport with a single one, and the reasons offered did not add up. Many if not most were to be refuted in the coming months. Yet the mayor’s task force — on which I was honored to sit as the token opposition — recommended a single terminal anyway, to no one’s surprise.
Most seasoned observers say that the KCI terminal issue may be the most mishandled public proposal in memory. It has everything: lies, exaggerations, distortions, secret meetings, no-bid proposals, do-overs, corruption accusations, legal threats and more. Some local leaders recently opined that regardless of any potential merits of the proposal, City Hall should not be given a victory lap due to their horrible mishandling of this from the beginning until now.
I agree 100 percent. How we do things in government is every bit as important as what we do.
So the question becomes whether the end justifies the means. How do we reconcile KCI’s terminal needs with the need for good government, policy and process?
In 2013, the single terminal idea was a project in search of a need, and was struggling to find one. Most of the needs proponents cited were easily disproved, and Southwest Airlines even said that it and the other airlines were perfectly happy in the existing terminals.
Four years later, a different story. Southwest now says it is at capacity here, in part because of rapid expansion following the expiration of the Wright Amendment in 2014, which had restricted air traffic at Dallas-area airports. The airline has also retired its smaller 737s. So there are now more people on every Southwest flight, making the gate areas more crowded and more difficult for connecting passengers to navigate than they were in 2013.
Thus, Southwest says it is not routing new connecting service through KCI, but also won’t commit to new service with a new terminal. It has requested the same number of gates in a new terminal as it has now. Other airlines are replacing their commuter jets with larger planes, making their gate areas more crowded as well.
While much of the “yes” campaign hype still stretches the truth, there are now some legitimate reasons to support the idea of a single terminal that did not exist four years ago. But there’s a problem: The sudden rush to hit a November election date means we don’t yet have the final proposal. So how those reasons are addressed and what they’ll cost is still a mystery. In fact, the rendering of the proposed gate areas shows a children’s play area, but no seating for several hundred waiting passengers.
If we reach an agreement with Edgemoor Infrastructure & Real Estate, it will detail the final specs, costs, responsibilities and liabilities. As the original data we gave them for the request for proposals was from 2013-16, it’s all being updated to include revised growth projections, how those revised projections affect the number of gates needed when the terminal opens, and how that all would impact project costs.
Since this agreement won’t be completed before we vote, we literally don’t know what, how much or even who we’re voting on. A modified version of the ballot language could read, “Can we just tear down the existing terminals and be trusted to come up with an affordable single terminal that will make you wish we’d done it four years ago?”
On Tuesday, we’re really only voting on giving up our ability to vote on a final proposal.
In 2016, Mayor Sly James said it was time to “press pause” because “less than 40 percent believe that it is a good idea to move forward with a new terminal.” A year and a half later, a very rushed and mishandled process has brought us to Election Day so quickly that we don’t know what we are being asked to say yes to.
A no vote is your pause button until we have something worthy of a yes.
Kevin Koster is a marketing and business value adviser and a fourth-generation Kansas Citian.