In April 2013, Kansas City Mayor Sly James called for an “adult discussion about the facts” regarding the proposal to build a new single-terminal airport. Reach your own conclusion about whether that has happened. The Kansas City Star editorial board has rightfully derided the airport single-terminal bidding process as a “disruptive mess” “marked by distrust, misinformation, unnecessary secrecy and conflict.” But the process has been chaotic for years—at least since the Mayor opened up the issue in 2013. Here are some of the dispiriting details in the continuing new terminal saga:
It should be noted that members of the City Council did not appear to be welcoming of public input since the very beginning. Recall that back in late 2011, then-City Councilman Ed Ford said that Kansas City was going to get a new terminal regardless of what voters think. Then, after calling it a “wasted effort,” Mayor James and the City Council yielded to a petition requiring a public vote on the airport regardless of funding. More recently, Mayor James sought non-disclosure agreements from other Council members to avoid information becoming public.
Former Aviation Director Mark VanLoh has accepted much of the blame for the new terminal mess. As the Star’s Steve Vockrodt wrote, he simply did not know about Missouri’s requirement that a vote be held in order for airport bonds to be issued. Recall too, that:
- While developing plans for a new single terminal, the Aviation Department did not consult with the airlines.
- The new terminal campaign was so disorganized that former Star editorialist Yael Abouhalkah called for VanLoh to be removed, writing that he did not “have the public credibility to lead on this extremely crucial project.” It was more than two years before VanLoh was finally forced out.
- A year before being replaced, VanLoh made a startling admission to a northland chamber of commerce, saying he just wanted a new terminal regardless of facts.
During all of this, Mayor James appointed an Airport Terminal Advisory Group (ATAG) which itself became a source of mistrust and unnecessary secrecy:
- In appointing the co-chairmen, Mayor James made it clear the conclusion he wanted them to reach, saying that anyone who opposed a new terminal was “uninformed.” [July 9 Kansas City Star, story taken down.]
- Many of the members of the advisory group had contracts with the city, and at least one may have had a conflict of interest in that she worked for the Aviation Department director.
- The advisory group began its series of meetings by removing skeptics at the very moment its leaders were saying the meetings were open to the public.
- In presentations to the advisory committee, the Aviation Department appeared to be inflating repair costs. The estimated costs of building a new terminal were all over the place.
- Despite shifting cost claims, the advisory group appeared uninterested in engaging with anyone skeptical of the Aviation Department’s information regarding the necessity and cost of a new terminal.
- Advisory group members and even Mayor Sly James asserted incorrectly that Kansas City may not use airport funds for city purposes.
- Advisory group leaders secretly met with the Aviation Department’s public relations team.
- Shockingly, one of the co-chairmen of the advisory group—who led an accounting firm in Kansas City—said, “any dollar amount placed on any alternative is almost pretty random.”
- After suggesting they may not make a recommendation because, “the group didn't have enough information,” advisory group leaders reversed course and indicated they would make a recommendation anyway.
- The advisory committee recommended a new terminal, subject to cost—only after a renovation of the existing terminals was removed as an option.
In addition, many of the arguments used to support the need for a new terminal just collapsed under examination,
- Despite initial claims made by the Aviation Department, there were no EPA or energy needs for a new terminal. In fact, the initial claim about the EPA was bogus.
- Likewise, security concerns about the existing terminals were overhyped. More recent claims that KCI has a long security wait proved to be just as baseless.
- VanLoh once asserted that “KCI now has more airport screeners than all three New York airports combined.” That statement was clearly and unambiguously untrue.
- Suggestions that the airlines won’t expand services with the current configuration have been shown to be unfounded. During the debate over a new terminal, new airlines have come to the airport and existing airlines have expanded service.
- We were told the airlines agreed to pay for a new terminal. This claim was never true and thankfully has been abandoned.
- Despite being strapped for cash, it was even suggested that Kansas may build an airport if Kansas City does not.
- Advocates for a new terminal still claim that if we build a new terminal we will get more traffic, more direct flights to Europe, and new business in Kansas City. They even say we cannot win a bid for Amazon without a new single terminal. This is all speculative, and none of it is founded in any commitments from businesses or airlines.
- In the last few months, we were told that a secretive, no-bid deal was the best option for a new terminal in Kansas City. This was demonstrably untrue, as the Council chose a different vendor once other bids were considered.
Throughout this debate, the conversation shifted from whether or not we need a new terminal to who was going to pay for it, and then again to who was going to build it. We’ve never satisfactorily answered the initial question, which is probably why voters remain skeptical.
Process is important in public policy, and while the Star editorial board and others may be relieved that Kansas City finally has a vendor and we’re cleared for a November vote, ultimately it appears voters are left choosing fruit from a poisoned tree. While it may be true that this proposal is better than what City leaders originally advocated, that is not saying much. We can only guess what other companies would have bid on the project if the bidding process had not appeared to be fixed, if the project did not require private financing, or if the project had not been limited to a single terminal rather than a mere renovation. To advocate for this plan simply because the process is over amounts to letting policymakers off the hook for years of bad behavior. Kansas City deserves much, much better.