Missouri lawmaker to play key role in KCI decision

Almost exactly a year ago, officials in Wichita broke ground on a new airport terminal, a $160 million project they had sought for more than a decade.

But Wichita residents won’t pay the full cost. Instead, the federal government is expected to kick in $60 million, thanks in part to the city’s congressional delegation.

“A member (of Congress) can make a difference,” recalled Wichita’s former congressman Todd Tiahrt, who was part of the effort.

Kansas City travelers may soon learn exactly what kind of difference a member of Congress can make.

Unlike Tiahrt – and dozens of other congressmen and congresswomen with local airports in their districts – Rep. Sam Graves, the Missouri Republican who represents the 6th District, actively opposes a new airport terminal in his district.

Graves, in fact, has fought against a single-terminal Kansas City International Airport for years. The current three-terminal setup, he says, is simple, cheap, safe and convenient. “I haven’t heard an argument yet that makes any sense to me,” he said last week after sponsoring a hearing designed to highlight opposition to the single-terminal concept. “Other than, ‘We should build it just because we can.’ ”

Graves’ persistent, public opposition to a new single-terminal KCI continues to bedevil backers of the idea.

They don’t think his opposition can kill the project, particularly if the airport forgoes substantial federal funding. But, they say:

› Graves can focus dissatisfaction with the proposal, causing numerous bureaucratic delays that could stretch out the approval process for years.

› Graves, an enthusiastic amateur pilot, holds a seat on the aviation subcommittee of the House Transportation Committee, increasing his potential for influence. In the previous congressional session, for example, he inserted language into a Federal Aviation Administration bill that makes passenger convenience a part of the calculation when airport projects are discussed.

› Members of Graves’ staff have talked with airline officials skeptical of a single terminal, whose support for such a project would be critical. So far, the air carriers’ concerns remain intact.

› Graves could be a leading voice against the terminal plan if it goes on the ballot, even though, as a resident of Tarkio, Mo., he would not have a vote.

“He’ll whine about it,” said former Kansas City councilman Bill Skaggs, a Democrat who sits on Mayor Sly James’ airport study committee.

But “I don’t know how many people will pay attention to a northwest Missouri congressman on an issue as big as this, when everybody recognizes we need a new airport.”

Others, though, are more cautious. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri’s 5th District, a former Kansas City mayor, said Graves’ opposition is genuine and must be addressed.

“He’s going to have a role,” Cleaver said. “I don’t think people get it. It’s not going to happen without Sam Graves.”

Seeking agreement

There were signs last week that airport backers are getting the message. They’re quietly talking with Graves and his staff, exploring potential areas of agreement.

As a result, Graves’ rhetoric may soften. After last week’s hearing, for example, he said there are ways to improve parts of the airport without a $1.2 billion overhaul of the facility.

“He realizes it’s a 40-year-old airport,” said Graves spokesman Chris Averill. “He wants to be part of the conversation.”

In fact, some airport supporters think Graves’ view of the project is more about politics than policy. If polling shows his constituents moving to the single-terminal plan, they say, Graves will, too.

While working with Graves to find agreement, single-terminal backers are also exploring alternatives if he continues to resist the plan.

They may turn to other members of the local delegation.

In other cities with airport projects – Birmingham, Indianapolis, San Diego, Philadelphia and many more – members of Congress from both parties usually work overtime to secure support for the jobs and economic boost that a bigger airport might bring.

So far, though, representatives in the Kansas City area have left the issue firmly in Graves’ hands.

Rep. Kevin Yoder’s 3rd District in Kansas includes tens of thousands of KCI customers. He says he is watching developments, but he won’t commit now to supporting a single-terminal overhaul.

“It’s a local decision,” Yoder said.

Missouri’s U.S. senators, Claire McCaskill and Roy Blunt, also have been lukewarm.

“I kind of get where Sam’s coming from. Part of me agrees with him,” said McCaskill, a Democrat.

A Blunt spokeswoman said the Missouri Republican “respects the process” and will wait before committing to a terminal plan.

So as the community moves forward with an examination of the cost, design, need and importance of a remade airport, it appears it must also decipher the multidimensional politics of the decision.

“When you spend the public’s money,” McCaskill said, “politics always enters into it.”