Sly James nixes a new Kansas City International Airport concept for now

It won’t happen in August. Or November.

There’s no telling when Kansas City voters will get to decide on the future of Kansas City International Airport.

One week after a consortium of airlines made it clear to city leaders that they wanted a new, single-terminal version of KCI, Kansas City Mayor Sly James realized voters didn’t have much appetite to pursue the $1.2 billion overhaul of the locally popular airport.

So ends years of jostling over whether KCI today has enough places to eat and drink beyond security checkpoints, whether KCI is efficient, whether Kansas City can be a “world-class city” with an edifice built in 1972.

“We’re going to press the pause button on the conversation for now,” James told a room full of reporters gathered in City Manager Troy Schulte’s office on Tuesday afternoon.

How long is “for now”? The answer wasn’t clear on Tuesday. James was asked if the KCI discussion would be off the table for the rest of his term.

“I don’t know when the airport comes off the shelf,” James said.

The airlines were the primary driver of the KCI conversation during the last two years, but the voters would always be able to play their trump card at the ballot box.

Polling conducted between April 25 and April 28 indicated that only 39 percent of prospective voters would approve a ballot question to approve bonds for a new KCI.

“We cannot do this unless we have the confidence of our city,” said 4th District Councilwoman Jolie Justus, who also chairs the city’s Airport Committee.

It appears that James made the decision to pull the plug on a new KCI.

“It was not a council decision,” 3rd District at-large Councilman Quinton Lucas told The Pitch after Tuesday’s press conference.

“This is something we were told individually about,” said Mayor Pro Tem and 1st District at-large Councilman Scott Wagner. “It really was his [James’] suggestion.”

James reiterated his belief that Kansas City needs a new airport.

Maybe so, but the KCI topic has been a spectacularly mismanaged discussion over the years. The Aviation Department did its part to erode credibility for the new-KCI movement through a series of missteps, misstatements and overreaches.

The airlines, whose business KCI is dependent upon, indicated two years ago that they didn’t care to see an expensive KCI overhaul, only to resurface again last year saying a new terminal would cost less than a renovation of the current three-terminal design.

Even the price tag for an airport was a continually moving target. When discussions about a new KCI began, city officials posited it would cost $1.2 billion. Then city leaders downplayed that number. Then, when the airlines wanted to make the case that a new airport would cost less than renovations, it pegged the cost as somewhere around $900 million.

When the recommended concept was floated a week ago, it was described as a $964 million project. But the true cost was right back again at $1.2 billion, once financing charges and interest were entered into the equation. 

For people who pay attention to these things, it was a maddening process. 

Even for people who don’t, there’s a sense that KCI is more user-friendly to passengers than most airports. Indeed, the poll from late April had 95 percent of respondents saying convenience was important, and of those, 87 percent believed KCI as it is today was convenient.

That argument overrode pleas from new KCI supporters who felt KCI was outdated, inefficient and made for a lousy welcome mat for out-of-town visitors.

Also playing a part in the city’s decision to back away from a KCI ballot measure is a little-discussed likelihood that Kansas City will soon seek approval from voters on a large bond issuance, possibly tied to a property tax increase, to fund major, long-neglected infrastructure improvements. It’s likely city leaders didn’t want to push ahead on a new KCI, given the broader public’s sentiment toward the airport, and then ask for a tax increase for other projects in short order.

Who knows when this discussion will re-emerge? And when it does, will Kansas City be able to get as good, or a better deal, from its airline partners as it had last week? The airlines said they would help finance and guarantee the debt behind KCI’s revamp. And it wasn’t tied to a tax increase of any kind from local voters.

There’s no guarantee the city can get that kind of deal the next time around.

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