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Sunday, April 23, 2017

 

Editorial: Time to decide the airport’s future — KCI decision should be made in November

By The Kansas City Star editorial board

 

 

                              Southwest Airlines is the primary airline that has committed to a new terminal at KCI. But that commitment won’t last forever.

 

Kansas City leaders are quietly discussing a Nov. 7 vote on building a new passenger terminal at Kansas City International Airport.

The timetable is ambitious but reasonable. Kansas City should decide this year what it wants to do with its airport.

Airport officials already have reached out to civic groups, asking for comments on a new terminal. Business leaders are expected to make their views known publicly within the next few weeks. Airlines may be asked to reaffirm their support by mid-July.

At that point, a resolution will be introduced for City Council consideration. A final vote would come in August, in time for the November ballot.

The schedule may seem aggressive to some, particularly those who oppose a new terminal. They’d prefer to wait until 2018 — or perhaps never vote at all.

That would be a mistake. Kansas Citians should vote this year. Here’s why:

▪ The broad outline of options is already known. Kansas Citians face a fundamental choice: Should the existing terminals be refurbished, or should the city build a new facility?

Doing nothing is not an option. Waiting to vote won’t change that reality; it will only increase the cost.

While the specifics of the design will not be known by November, the idea of a single terminal has been discussed for more than two years.

So the decision is actually pretty simple. Should the airport be allowed to borrow $1 billion for terminal improvements? If so, should the money pay for a new terminal or upgrades to the existing structure?

A simple majority of voters will decide.

▪ The airlines need an answer. After supporting renovations for several months, the air carriers serving KCI, primarily Southwest Airlines, have committed to a new terminal.

But that commitment won’t last forever. Even if voters approve the new facility in November, construction probably would not be finished until 2022.

Any further delay will push the finish date back. At some point, the airlines will begin to explore opportunities in other communities — or in Kansas, which has made noises about building a new airport in Johnson County.

▪ Federal help may be available. We’re skeptical that Washington will offer any significant financial aid for KCI, but it wouldn’t hurt to be prepared.

▪ Kansas City voters have shown a willingness to address infrastructure needs. Passage of the $800 million bond issue shows voters understand the need for repairing streets and bridges in the community. We think those same voters can fully digest arguments for and against a new terminal by November.

Supporters of a new terminal need to be transparent. There must be an ironclad guarantee that taxpayers won’t be on the hook for the facility — only flyers and the airlines will pay the cost.

While the design still will be incomplete, we’ll expect some details about convenience and prices. Supporters of a new single terminal have promised an airport just as convenient as the current KCI; they should be held to that standard before the polls open.

Voters will want to make sure that the size reflects the needs of a city like Kansas City and that the terminal will be flexible enough to meet travelers’ demands for the foreseeable future. This is a 50-year decision.

We’re not endorsing a new terminal yet. Like voters, we first want to see as much detail as possible.

But we are endorsing a vote this year, up or down, on the way forward for the airport. After years of discussion, it’s time to decide.

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