Kansas City officials vetting all options to help finance new KCI Airport

The City of Kansas City clearly plans to take a look at all options when it comes to constructing a new KCI Airport in Platte County.

With news starting to leak out, Kansas City mayor Sly James announced a private initiative to fund the new facility with Burns and McDonnell — an international engineering and architecture firm — stepping up to lead the way. Make no mistake, this would be a unique venture, which Kansas City voters would still have to approve, but it basically removes all potential risk from taxpayer burden.

You will remember that previously James and the city halted its pursuit of a new one-terminal construction on the existing property due to polls showing a lack of full support.

Voters would have needed to approve that project, too, and that required a bit of maneuvering — or at least helping to make people understand the process. Most airports are funded through revenue bonds, meaning citizens of Kansas City would not have paid a direct tax.

Instead, users (read: passengers) would pay for the construction through fees on tickets. The money couldn’t be used anywhere else, only on the airport project.

However, the projected $964 million price tag led to some concerns that Kansas City citizens would be faced with an unwarranted burden.

While this was not true, the risk — although minimal in my estimation — would be that if users did not generate the revenue needed, the airlines could balk at making up the difference. In that unlikely scenario, the taxpayers and City of Kansas City would be expected to make up the difference.

I’ve been saying that if the air traffic at KCI declined even with a brand new facility, we would likely be facing a cataclysmic event where our problems would be much more severe than possibly defaulting on revenue bonds. Maybe I’m just too optimistic, though.

In the current scenario floated, Burns and McDonnell would invest and seek out partners to help fund the project through private financing. The cost estimate would still be close to $1 billion, and Burns and McDonnell said it would set a maximum price and fight the potential of overrun and offset higher interest rates by starting sooner and finishing quicker.

According to the announcement last week, officials think they could have the project done before 2024.

Burns and McDonnell’s proposed project would still be funded through revenue at the airport, but in this scenario, the airlines would be obligated to make up any shortfalls — not the city and taxpayers. I still say this is an unlikely scenario, but if this helps sway the popular opinion, Kansas City could finally receive its wanted — and needed — upgrades.

Also, key to remember would be that renovation of the existing terminals would remain off the table, so apologies already to those who love the convenience and don’t care about additional amenities.

The construction project would also be in the control of Burns and McDonnell, which noted its experience in working with airports that includes the most recent renovations to KCI starting in 2001. The company would have the say in design and new setup of the airport, although public input would be sought.

And the City of Kansas City would want the process to be voter approved due to a 2014 citizens’ petition requesting some oversight. In the end, the issue could end up on the November ballot, giving one final say on whether to upgrade the airport in Burns and McDonnell’s vision or start the process all over.

Remember, time remains a bit of a factor. 

Officials have worried that Johnson County, Kan. could step in with an alternative plan to appease the airline carriers. There has been interest from the Sunflower State so Kansas City voters have a little bit of incentive to move forward with this after so many other stops and starts along the way.

Ross Martin is publisher of The Citizen. He may be reached via email at editor@plattecountycitizen.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Citizen_Ross.