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Kansas City set to receive bids for new $1 billion airport project


KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Engineering firms will have until June 20 to submit their bids to design and build a new terminal at the Kansas City International Airport.

Several top firms, including Kansas City’s own Burns and McDonnell, are vying for the project after Kansas City Manager Troy Schulte decided to open the bidding process last week.

“This is a win for Kansas City,” Mayor Sly James said in a statement May 30. “Our airport is the most vital investment we make in order to share our city with the world. And now we know firms are ready to compete to make our airport as world-class as our city.”

Burns and McDonnell offered in May to privately finance the $1 billion project so long as it received exclusive rights to build the new terminal, eliminating the need for taxpayers to foot the bill on the project. It also promised to use local labor, suppliers and resources when and where possible. However later that month, AECOM, the largest airport engineering firm in the nation, sent a letter to Kansas City officials asking to be considered for the terminal project as well.

Schulte announced the process would indeed become more open May 30, but firms will have just three weeks from the time of the announcement to submit their bids in what is called a “Swiss challenge.” Not typically used in the United States, a Swiss challenge allows a firm who makes an initial, unsolicited proposal for a public project to allow other bids to be made on the proposal. The initial proposer, in this case Burns and McDonnell, then gets to match or offer a better bid that what is deemed the best bid of the new lot.

Mike Talboy, the director of government affairs at Burns and McDonnell, said they were eager to formally submit their plans alongside other firms.

“We welcome the challenge,” Talboy said. “We think we have a very good plan, and one that the city obviously has looked at, and we feel like if nothing else, we have jumpstarted the process in this and that’s what the mayor’s challenge was… We feel very confident about the chances our proposal has.”

AECOM will likely be one of those firms. Mike Handelman, a regional leader with AECOM, wrote a letter to the Kansas City government asking to be included in the process, though it has yet to submit its bid.

“With the capabilities and experience to design, build, finance, operate, and maintain a replacement terminal for KCI airport, AECOM presents an interested, serious competitive option as you contemplate procurement next steps,” the letter reads. “AECOM stands ready to engage with the City to discuss go-forward options and ultimately, to compete for the honor of your business and partnership.”

An AECOM representative did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The project guidelines ask that the proposal submissions include plans to design, build and privately finance a 750,000 square foot terminal with a 6,500 spot parking garage. The terminal must have 35 gates, which can be expandable to 42 gates and also be approved by airlines. In addition, the plan must include the use of local labor and pay prevailing wage.

Most importantly, the project must also allow the city to maintain control of the airport. Several private companies have bid to construct the new terminal, but many of their plans would include private control over the finished project, something city officials have quickly dismissed. Kansas City Councilwoman Jolie Justus told the Kansas City Star May 25, that she believed AECOM was suggesting private control over the airport in their letter to the city.

“Obviously, that has been something we’ve said all along we don’t want,” Justus, the Kansas City Council Airport Committee’s chairwoman, said. “We wouldn’t have control over the labor and all of the other things we wanted, so it’s really a non-starter, in my opinion.”

The discussion to change the city’s airport has existed for years. An FAA-required “master plan” from 2007 revealed plans to transform the airport into a single terminal airport. Many veteran travelers and business leaders have criticized the three-terminal, four-decade old airport. In 2016, JD Power ranked the airport 26th of 33 medium-sized airports in the nation on metrics like terminal facilities, airport accessibility, baggage claim and check in and amenities (St. Louis’ Lambert Airport ranked 29th on the same scale). Such criticism has prompted city leaders to consider building a new single-terminal airport in its place.

The private investment portion of the plan Burns and McDonnell’s offer means the city will not need to increase taxes to find revenue to pay for the project. Burns and McDonnell said they would instead find the revenue needed to build the new terminal from fees charged to the airlines that operate in the airport. The new airport would not cost the city a cent, and Talboy says it would alleviate one of the primary concerns of the people the airport will serve without impacting the quality of the project.

“The idea of privately financed option was we saw that the traditional approach to funding airport construction was not necessarily favorable to the citizens,” Talboy said. “We wanted to make sure we could alleviate those concerns if possible.”

Talboy acknowledged Burns and McDonnell also needed to find a partner more willing to join with them on what will likely be a less lucrative project because it does not transfer any ownership to the private sector. Accessibility and convenience were also major parts of their plan.

Regardless of who gets the project, it will need a vote by the citizens of Kansas City to go forward. Public elections are required on any major change to the airport.

The Kansas City Council Airport and Transportation and Infrastructure committees will hold a public hearing at 5:30 p.m. Monday evening at the Bruce Watkins Cultural Center to further discuss the current status of the bid process for the new terminal.