With plans to revamp Kansas City International Airport stalled, Gov. Sam Brownback and others in Kansas government are exploring the possibility of building an airport in Johnson County to rival KCI, The Star has learned.
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In a statement to The Star in response to a request for comment, Brownback confirmed the effort.
“Airlines are requesting construction of a new single terminal airport at (KCI), and the state of Kansas is continually looking for new economic development opportunities,” the governor said in an e-mail. “With more than 50 percent of (KCI) passengers coming from Kansas, we are exploring the possibilities of this project.”
Multiple sources have told The Star that the Brownback administration’s discussions about an airport began late last year. The plans had been closely held. The sources said that several people are under nondisclosure agreements.
Earlier in the week, Brownback had declined to comment about a rival airport, but he provided a statement late Friday. Brownback’s office did not provide additional details.
But Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer also issued a statement.
“There is clearly potential for a modern terminal with lower enplanement costs and increased efficiencies for airlines with minimal taxpayer funding,” Colyer said in an e-mail. “An airport of this nature has the ability to generate enormous economic impact for the state and we owe it to Kansans to explore the feasibility of this project.”
Brownback’s and Colyer’s comments may drastically change the nature of debate about KCI, a project that Kansas City officials put on hold a year ago when polling suggested that residents were not keen on making substantive changes to the airport.
Both Kansas City Mayor Sly James and City Manager Troy Schulte told The Star they were aware of talk of trying to replace KCI with a new airport in Johnson County.
James and Schulte are among many officials and others who have tried to build a case that KCI in its current form is an out-of-date, inefficient facility that makes for an embarrassing front door to out-of-town travelers. But for all the voices championing a new single-terminal KCI, they appear to be outnumbered by people who prefer KCI’s current, easy-to-use format.
When Kansas City officials realized prospective voters were not behind a revamping, they took a break from publicly discussing KCI. That has presented an opportunity for Brownback, a governor who has been keen on winning jobs and businesses from the Missouri side of the state line, to consider sweeping what would be the biggest Border War prize of all.
“If we don’t get off our tails,” James said regarding Kansas’ competition on KCI, “the possibility becomes greater.”
The Star last month asked the Kansas Commerce Department and Brownback’s office for any documents regarding plans for an airport in the vicinity of Kansas City. The requests were made under the Kansas Open Records Act.
The Commerce Department would not give out any records, saying the request sought documents that would be exempt under the open records act. It cited two exemptions in the act that preclude disclosure of records.
One was an exemption for preliminary drafts, research data or “records in which opinions are expressed or policies or actions are proposed” that have not been disclosed publicly.
The other related to records about a prospective location of a business or industry that had not yet been made public.
Ed Eilert, chairman of the Johnson County Board of Commissioners, declined to comment when asked whether he had been briefed on plans for a Johnson County airport.
“I really can’t make any comment,” Eilert said.
The precise location contemplated for a Johnson County passenger airport remains unclear.
The county currently has two airports. The New Century AirCenter, which has two runways and serves civil aviation. The smaller Johnson County Executive Airport has a single runway and serves corporate and business flights.
What Johnson County or the Kansas side of the metro region doesn’t have is an airport comparable to KCI.
The talk of an alternate airport in the region comes after several years of Kansas City leaders publicly pushing the need to replace KCI’s three-terminal design with a single-terminal operation that was thought to function more efficiently.
That campaign was met with skepticism by a broader public that sees airports in other metro areas as sluggish behemoths and prefers the easy-in, easy-out nature of KCI.
The KCI issue came to a head last year when a coalition of airlines, led by Southwest Airlines, had come around to the idea of a single-terminal airport and suggested they would help finance it. James shortly after declared that the city would hold off on further public pursuit of a new KCI after seeing public opinion polls that showed Kansas City residents hadn’t been persuaded by the case for major changes at the airport.
Brownback’s maneuvering for an airport in Kansas is a bold move for his administration. For Brownback, the upsides of landing an airport in Johnson County include jobs — Kansas City says nearly 60,800 people owe their jobs to KCI — and an accomplishment to point to for an administration flagging in popularity amid ongoing state budget woes.
But several challenges stand in Kansas’ glide path for an airport.
For one thing, planning for an airport takes years, even decades. Discussions to start work on Denver International Airport, which opened in 1995, started in the early 1980s. Planning for a new terminal building for the Indianapolis International Airport, which opened in 2008, traces its origins back to 1975.
It would also require approval and coordination with the Federal Aviation Administration.
Then there’s the cost. Building a new airport from scratch is enormously expensive. Airports in Atlanta, Las Vegas, Dallas and Los Angeles have invested amounts in the range of $1 billion to $2.4 billion each in recent years in constructing new terminal buildings or renovating existing ones. That doesn’t include the cost of runways, parking facilities, air control towers, surrounding highways and myriad other related aviation structures.
One thing that may favor the prospects of a Kansas airport is President Donald Trump’s stated willingness to invest in airport facilities.
Trump met with executives of domestic airline carriers Thursday in the White House.
“During the meeting, the president stated four times that America must modernize and rebuild our airports,” said Kevin Burke, president and CEO of Airports Council International North America, a trade association of airport directors. “We can quickly fund and undertake these much-needed infrastructure projects with no federal budget impact by giving airports more control of local investment decisions.”
The Star’s Lynn Horsley contributed to this report.