BY LYNN HORSLEY AND DAVE HELLING
The Kansas City Star
For more than two years, Kansas City aviation officials flew under the radar, quietly pushing a proposal to replace three aging terminals at Kansas City International Airport with a single new facility.
Today they are stunned.
The City Council’s support for a revamped Kansas City International Airport is already encountering a public backlash. That poses the potential of a political challenge if the city seeks a vote on airport bonds in the next few years.
An effort in recent months to move the proposal into full public view might have instead stirred up gale-force headwinds of opposition, threatening to ground the entire project before it starts.
A small group launched a petition drive a week ago that aimed to keep the single-terminal proposal firmly in the hangar. Although that petition was ruled legally invalid, it’s just one more example of the public backlash that has shocked some political observers and council members.
“I’ve been surprised that there’s so much love for KCI, for the present configuration,” said Ed Ford, a City Council member from the Northland.
Mayor Sly James, who supports moving forward with a study on the merits of a new terminal, acknowledged how quickly the opposition surfaced.
“I think what happened is that the concept got pushed out before we had figured out how to push it out,” James said.
Veteran political consultant Steve Glorioso, who hasn’t made up his mind on the new terminal, said the public is already passionately engaged on a project that is years from becoming a reality.
“Surprisingly, it’s caught the attention of a lot of citizens, both travelers and non-travelers,” he said. “There’s not an election imminent, but there’s widespread discussion everywhere I go.”
For now, James and a majority of the council appear undeterred by the public pushback. Negative voices are often the first and loudest, the mayor said, and he’s heard plenty of support from other local residents for a new airport terminal.
And it’s foolish to shut down the debate and kill the proposal before it’s fully studied, he said.
“Do we have the airport that a first-class city needs and deserves?” James asked. “If the answer is this is the best airport for this city, OK.”
But the fierce debate could set the stage for an expensive, feisty election campaign. Hundreds of millions of dollars in aviation bonds, the cheapest financing for a new terminal, would have to be authorized by Kansas City voters, perhaps within three years. The bonds would be backed by aviation funds — paid by airlines, passengers, tenants and other users — not general taxpayer dollars.
On April 11, the City Council voted 9-3 to continue planning for a new airport terminal to make sure the project is warranted and affordable. By the end of May, the city will announce a series of public hearings to provide more information and gather feedback.
An environmental assessment also is underway, and the Federal Aviation Administration is reviewing Kansas City’s draft study on the new terminal.
Those reviews should be done by October. Once they are finished, the city will determine the next steps, including possible selection of an architect and a future local election to approve aviation bonds.
But signs are already emerging that the new terminal concept faces major turbulence:
• Preliminary polling. Conservative political consultant Jeff Roe said 67 percent of voters he surveyed last August opposed a single terminal, although he would not provide the precise language of the question.
Roe said people who use KCI love it, calling it one of the most convenient, passenger-friendly airports in the country. They think a new terminal and parking garage, estimated to cost $1.2 billion, would be a big waste of money.
Pat Gray, another veteran consultant, also asked one quick question in a broader survey of city issues last year, pointing out that aviation experts recommended a new terminal and asking if people supported or opposed that idea. He said more than 50 percent were opposed, although he would not provide specifics.
Gray, who supports the new terminal concept, said that “someone is fueling a fire to shut down the conversation.” He said most Kansas City voters will want more information before they make up their minds.
“Of course, it’s possible to change public opinion,” Gray said.
• U.S. Rep. Sam Graves. The congressman, who represents the district where the airport is located and who serves on a House aviation subcommittee, already has come out against the idea.
Graves and Roe have long been linked, and some believe the two will lead an organized opposition to any new terminal election.
Neither would confirm the possibility.
“It just depends,” Graves said. “It depends on how hard some people are pushing, whether I play an active role.”
• The Show-Me Institute. This Missouri free-market think tank has posted commentary against the idea of a new terminal, and a representative questioned the project at a council hearing.
The institute’s co-founder is St. Louis businessman Rex Sinquefield, who has spent millions of dollars on conservative issues, including the state law that requires Kansas City to reauthorize the earnings tax every five years. He could provide hundreds of thousands of dollars for an anti-airport-terminal campaign.
A Sinquefield spokeswoman recently said he is not currently involved in the airport debate.
• Grass roots opposition. Savekci.org has garnered lots of comments, and its creator even flew a banner over the Royals’ opening day game to promote the cause.
The website’s creator works in the same Northland building as Roe, and the two have discussed working together on the airport issue.
Meanwhile, a separate small group of neighborhood activists gathered more than 100 signatures seeking a referendum against any new terminal. The city attorney dismissed the petition as premature, but the group vowed to mount another campaign for a citywide election if the council votes to proceed with a new terminal.
Glorioso said such grass roots opposition could be formidable, especially if combined with Roe and other well-funded professionals.
“They’re amateurish, but that’s not even a negative for them because it shows the passion on this issue,” he said. “When they put together skill with passion, that’s why I think this can be a volatile issue, a very hard thing to get approved.”
For months, Aviation Director Mark VanLoh has made the case to countless civic organizations that replacing the 40-year-old three-terminal design with a new single terminal is essential.
Many people aren’t convinced. In one way, VanLoh sees that as a testament to his maintenance and operations employees, who have been able to keep the aging terminals functioning well.
But he notes the public doesn’t see the many ways in which those terminals are deteriorating and can’t be remodeled to meet the needs of the 21st century aviation world.
He hears the angst about losing convenience but says a new design can address that.
“We say, give us a chance,” VanLoh said of a new terminal. “We can make it better.”
To educate the public about the existing airport’s shortcomings and the merits of a new terminal, the department recently decided to spend $117,000 on a public relations campaign.
Some critics of the new terminal, including council members Scott Wagner and John Sharp, say the campaign may itself be a public relations problem.
“It sends the message that we are trying to sell something before it’s ready to be sold,” said Wagner, who was in the public relations business before he was elected to the council in 2011. “The decision to hire a firm to tell the story only plays into those who are cynical about the process to begin with.”
But James and Ford disagree.
“Hiring a PR firm is positive,” Ford said. “Information is helpful.”
Ford counts himself as someone who changed his mind and now favors a new terminal after he learned more about the issue. He is worried about the opposition but thinks all the attention will prompt local travelers to really examine their airport experience and how it could be improved with a new terminal.
“I’m concerned it’s off to a choppy start, but I think there’s enough good information out there,” he said. “I flipped, for example.”
With the current council, Kansas City hasn’t had any contentious elections. Voters last August approved a tax increase for parks and earlier this month renewed a health care property tax. Neither issue had any organized opposition.
But if the council decides to proceed with a new terminal, it could set the stage for one of the most interesting elections in years.
Glorioso said supporters might need to raise a half million dollars to overcome the opposition. Those supporters would probably include labor groups and business leaders because the construction alone could create 1,800 jobs.
“I like the airport like it is now,” said Duke Dujakovich, president of the Greater Kansas City AFL-CIO. “But all things considered, it’s time to do it, and to do it up right.”
Dujakovich worries about the tone of the current debate, though.
“I’m very concerned that people are already making up their minds about this before any concrete plan or discussion has even been formulated,” he said.
Major civic groups that often help pay for campaigns are undecided.
The Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce board has voted unanimously to support a new terminal concept for KCI, but it’s too soon to know about its involvement in any election, said chamber president Jim Heeter.
“It really is at the beginning of the process,” Heeter said. “What’s important to the business community is to get input and community reaction.”
Don Hall Jr., chairman of the Civic Council of Greater Kansas City, said the board hasn’t taken a position but is identifying the questions the city needs to answer to make a compelling business case for the potential investment of more than $1 billion.
Dick Davis, a Northland councilman, said he’s been surprised by the volume of the opposition but believes it’s positive that the airport bonds would have to go to a citywide vote at some point. It would show residents that the council can’t just shove this decision down the city’s throat.
“It means people will have to be convinced it’s a good idea before it gets built,” he said.
James said Kansas City missed the opportunity 20 years ago to build a comprehensive light-rail system and he doesn’t want Kansas City to miss out again.
“This is an opportunity for us to have an adult, citywide discussion about the front door of our city,” he said.
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