Fare Wars

Passenger counts are dropping at Kansas City International Airport, but business is booming for consultants overseeing the airport’s renovation.

Kansas City Aviation Director Russ Widmar has hired a consultant to help supervise a consultant hired to supervise the rehab, the cost of which is now estimated at $258 million. Every inch of the three airport terminal buildings is being updated from brown and blah to blue and beautiful. The work started in February 1999 and is supposed to be finished by October 2004; Kansas City fliers are bankrolling the upgrade with a fee tacked on to their plane tickets (which will repay the city-issued bonds).

The bill for the project is already more than $100 million above original estimates. First, the construction bids came in higher than expected. Security concerns after last September 11 added $16 million. Then the airlines wanted larger passenger waiting areas. And around the first of the year, workers found asbestos inside concrete-block walls; removal of the asbestos added even more to the tab.

Walton Construction, the main construction company on the project, is pocketing the largest amount of money — about $100 million.

Walton reports to engineering giant Burns & McDonnell, which has a $15 million project-management contract to make sure the new walls are where they’re supposed to be, the new terrazzo floors are level and the work gets done on time.

In turn, Burns & McDonnell officials report to aviation department engineer Phil Muncy, who is supposed to make sure the engineers are doing their job.

This summer, however, Widmar agreed to pay Leawood-based engineer Emil Konrath $200,000. He has told the Pitch that in the coming weeks he plans to ask the City Council for permission to pay Konrath $1.2 million more.

“I brought the Konrath Group in to help us better manage this project from our standpoint,” Widmar says. He says his own staff is busy keeping the airport running smoothly and that they lack the experience to supervise construction or renovation of buildings. “We’re a very good organization in terms of building roads and airfield-type projects — paving, concrete, lighting,” Widmar tells the Pitch. “What we don’t have any experience with, and haven’t had any experience here for thirty years, is building things above the ground.”

Muncy might be surprised to hear his boss say that, because the airport engineer’s résumé includes a building-construction project at the airport in Austin, Texas.

Konrath’s arrival has left people wondering “who’s on first in this project,” says Councilwoman Teresa Loar, chair of the city’s aviation committee.

Loar says she has heard complaints about Konrath from Burns & McDonnell and from Walton Construction. “Both companies called me wanting to know who this guy was and why they should listen to him,” Loar says. She didn’t have the answers. “I’m a little disturbed that the two $100,000 contracts had been signed before the council knew anything about it,” she adds.

In his role as aviation director, Widmar can spend up to $100,000 without seeking permission from the City Council, something he’s done twice for Konrath. Widmar hired Konrath in June, on the recommendation of City Architect Tom Bean. Konrath, who worked with Turner Construction until a year ago, had helped supervise the renovations of Bartle Hall and Kemper Arena for the city and had worked on the new Invesco Field at Mile High in Denver, where the Broncos play. Bean says Widmar told him he needed someone to smooth problems between Walton and Burns & McDonnell.

But Daniel Moore, executive vice president of Walton, says Burns & McDonnell has done a “fine job” and that problems between the two companies are to be expected. “It’s a $100 million renovation project,” Moore says. “It’s bound to have bumps.”

Moore says his crews have been taking orders from Burns & McDonnell and would refuse direction from Konrath.

Widmar says that is how it should be. “Konrath supervises nothing. They are not allowed to,” Widmar says.

But the language in Konrath’s June contract calls for him to “measure each consultant and contractor’s compliance with their contractual obligations.” A second $100,000 contract in July asked Konrath for “construction management support” and recommendations on how to supervise the project and its budget.

“I needed somebody on the job that reported directly to me,” Widmar says. “I’m ultimately responsible for this project. I found I was too far removed from it.”

Widmar says the contracts will save the city money over the long term.

With Konrath’s instruction, the city will be able to avoid project-management contracts such as Burns & McDonnell’s in the future, specifically on the $75 million rental-car facility planned for 2004, Widmar says. “[Konrath’s company has] been called in to create the systems for us to measure and report on progress and to teach us how to do this,” Widmar says. To farm out supervision of the rental-car project would cost as much as $8 million. “I’m thinking, why the hell would we do that?” Instead, Widmar says, “We’ll pocket the $8 million.”

That’s money the city might eventually have awarded to Burns & McDonnell, and Widmar suggests that might be part of the company’s frustration. “I know Burns & McDonnell is fighting me like hell. I know this. They’ve misunderstood what Konrath Group is here to do.”

Widmar says his problems are not just with Burns & McDonnell. “I have at one point or another been unhappy with the work product I’ve seen with almost everyone.”

Burns & McDonnell is “doing the job it was hired to do,” Widmar says. “Their job is not to educate us.”

But Burns & McDonnell has been educating Konrath.

Bret Pilney, project manager with Burns & McDonnell, estimates his 16-member airport staff has spent 100 to 200 hours meeting with Konrath and his employees. At Burns & McDonnell’s rate of roughly $90 an hour, that may have added up to nearly $20,000, a problem Pilney noted in an August 8 e-mail to Konrath. “Burns & McDonnell is spending a lot of time and resources (City monies) to meet with Konrath staff when they are not familiar with information previously provided,” Pilney wrote.

Pilney expressed similar concerns to Widmar in another e-mail on September 4. “I am still very unclear as to Konrath’s role….They have been disruptive in our project management efforts, particularly in regard to our time spent bringing them up to speed, responding to requests, and having rescheduled project meetings.”

Loar says she doesn’t understand what Widmar has in mind. Kansas City is home to a number of renowned architecture and engineering firms, including Burns & McDonnell, which designed the airport terminals and supervised their construction in the late 1960s. “If we can’t trust those firms to do what they have been asked to do … I’m not sure who we get to do this,” Loar says.

Widmar has dealt with airport-construction controversies before. In June 1999, Widmar resigned his previous job as executive director of the airport in Salt Lake City, citing disagreements about a proposed expansion of the airport. Widmar’s director of finance and administration resigned, agreeing to stay on only if she reported to a city official rather than to Widmar. The mayor of Salt Lake City spent $30,000 on a consultant to defuse the situation and improve communication.

Widmar says the Kansas City situation is not the same. “I resigned over differences with my boss,” he says. “My boss was the mayor.”

In Kansas City, his boss is City Manager Bob Collins, who recently announced his retirement and is on his way out the door. Meanwhile, Loar’s committee has asked Widmar for more details about where the money is going. “I think there are going to be more and more questions,” she says.

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