The public remains skeptical about the need for a new terminal and parking garage at Wichita Mid-Continent Airport, something the Wichita City Council must acknowledge as it prepares to advance the project at its June 21 meeting. But after nearly 10 years of debate and delays, the council should get on with it.
Some still argue that Wichita should sit back and wait before committing to a new terminal. But wait for what, exactly? Airports don’t improve with age and use. Costs for such a $200 million upgrade will only rise. Unlike some regional airports, Mid-Continent has had its three biggest annual passenger counts since 2007, with ridership rising 2.91 percent last year (better than the 2.1 percent increase nationally).
In terms of sparing local taxpayers, the financing plan looks about as good as it could get: a mix of user fees, federal grants and bond proceeds.
And though the health of the Wichita economy is far from robust, some of the uncertainties that led the City Council last fall to hit the pause button have been resolved.
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Hawker Beechcraft has committed to keep its headquarters in its hometown. Boeing won the Pentagon’s contract to build aerial-refueling tankers.
The Kansas Legislature and Gov. Sam Brownback committed $5 million to the Kansas Affordable Airfares Program for another year.
And the merger of Southwest Airlines and AirTran Airways was finalized last month, furthering hopes that Wichita will have the benefit not only of AirTran’s low-cost existing service but also Southwest’s routes and perks.
As outlined to the council at last week’s workshop, the shortcomings of the 57-year-old terminal are real and significant, if unseen by many of its more than 1.5 million passengers a year.
It doesn’t adhere to building codes or federal requirements for security or accessibility. The electrical, heating and cooling systems are obsolete. It’s full of asbestos. The single narrow corridor where departing passengers get screened and arriving passengers get hugged is completely at odds with post-Sept. 11 air travel.
And those who’d prefer a renovation to a new building should consider the comparable costs — and imagine the hassle and security challenges of a working terminal doubling as a construction site.
Besides, if Wichita scrapped the project in favor of making do with the current terminal, it would have to repay $22 million in federal money already spent. That’s not going to happen.
Plans also call for a new terminal that is energy-efficient and more functional for airlines, with displays about Wichita’s rich aviation history.
It’s probably a credit to the airport’s maintenance and management that few Wichitans view the place as a dump. But it’s time to get on with the new terminal, to ensure Wichita has the transportation infrastructure to support a 21st-century economy and population.
— For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman