Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Sky High Dreams

Kansas City is going to get a new airport that will cost it over $1.2 billion.  It really doesn't matter whether it needs one or not, whether the existing one gets the job done or not, or whether it makes any sense to build one or not.  What apparently is important to this situation is that the movers and shakers within city government want this new airport (as depicted to the left), and they're determined to get it.

Now for those of you who have never actually used KC's aerodrome, Kansas City currently possesses a unique three terminal design which was originally dedicated in 1972.  It has consistently ranked in the top five facilities in the country in terms of customer satisfaction (as tracked by J D Powers and Associates), for the last decade and in 2010 was rated as the top medium-sized airport.  (All of which appear to be good reasons to tear it down.)  

This isn't to say that KC hasn't hasn't kept up the facility and indeed has spent considerable money on its airport to update it over the last 41 years.  In a move to upgrade the original design, additional millions were spent not that many years later to add underground parking garages at each of the three terminals for the convenience of travelers.  (What fate that underground parking would see after this latest revision has yet to be discussed.)  During the years of airline expansion, a fourth concourse was even considered (and delayed long enough to make it unnecessary).  Just nine years ago, the city spent a further $258 million to again update the very terminals that it now wants to tear down and replace. 

Of course airline traffic is down these days; and with the recent mergers led by American and United, KC is today using only two of those available three terminals.  Then again, flights all over the country are down as the airline industry attempts to consolidate in the face of years of incipient financial failure.  The ever-increasing cost of fuel, the compeititive nature of key air routes, and an economic slow-down that has only added to a significant reduction in non-business related travel all point to an airline industry that will be struggling for many years ahead to maintain any level of profitability and damned lucky to see anything approaching a full recovery any time soon.  But instead of seeing the closing of 33% of its gates as a warning sign against future infrastructure spending, supporters of the new design see this instead as an opportunity to build the new facility over the recently closed corpse of the A Terminal.

On top of the poor industry timing, one has to wonder about the timing involved with looking for bond financing during the tight budgets of a stalled economic recovery.  After all, none of this has been approved for state or federal grants that might provide any alternative.  That would leave the airlines largely responsible for picking up the cost of this project by increasing landing fees, a move which will likely see such costs passed on to consumers through increased fares.  The city, whose infrastructure budget is already stretched like many others around the country, would likewise have figure out how to pick up part of the tab, something likely to be offset by yet more in the way of a higher sales tax or increases in hotel taxes (or both).  

And yet all of this effort and expense is to be made fro no better reason than to simplify the current security process at the airport and add shopping and restaurant venues.  The current layout apparently requires more staffing than the single entry port model of many airports (though it does shorten potential security lines); a job which has been ably handled by one of the few privatized security forces instead of the standard TSA agents.  Of course the real boon, as it is for any other such big government project, are some really great high-paying 'union' jobs in the construction trades, along with the inevitable construction delays and cost overruns that go with such efforts.  Strangely however, part of the initial justification of moving forward with the project is that it would allow this new airport to operate with less in the way of both security and other operational personnel.

Not surprisingly, local residents are rather dubious of moving forward with what they see as unnecessary spending, and have said so repeatedly.  KC's City Council however, seems unfazed by such public opinion and have recently approved the spending of $117,000 of such taxpayer money for a public relations firm to attempt to sell local residents on the project that they don't appear to want.  Or at least, not yet ... 

The bad news about such a disasterous waste in government spending in such tough economic times is that none of this will be going to KC road, water, and sewer systems that are all but crumbling beneath their feet.  The good news however, is that when such collapse does eventually happen, at least KC residents will have a new and more efficient escape route.

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