Tur­bu­lence is com­mon for cities with air­port projects like KCI ter­mi­nal

The Kansas City Star - - Front Page - BY AL­LI­SON KITE [email protected]­star.com

Costs have long since blown past ini­tial es­ti­mates, prompt­ing an in­de­pen­dent re­view of the price tag. Its open­ing is eight months be­hind sched­ule and mount­ing de­lays drew heated ques­tions from lo­cal of­fi­cials last year.

Sounds like the con­tin­u­ing saga of Kansas City’s planned air­port ter­mi­nal, over­whelm­ingly ap­proved by vot­ers in Novem­ber 2017. It’s ac­tu­ally about the new in­ter­na­tional arrivals fa­cil­ity un­der con­struc­tion at Seat­tle-Ta­coma In­ter­na­tional Air­port, or SeaTac.

The chal­lenges aren’t unique to ei­ther city. Across the coun­try, air­ports are a strug­gle to build.

Lay­ers of lo­cal, state and fed­eral reg­u­la­tion, com­plex pub­lic-pri­vate fi­nanc­ing plans and pol­i­tics can make it a chal­lenge to get a new ter­mi­nal or an air­port ex­pan­sion off the ground. Once con­struc­tion starts, un­fore­seen is­sues be­low ground, such as en­vi­ron­men­tal con­tam­i­na­tion or ar­chae­o­log­i­cal ar­ti­facts, can slow progress.

“It hap­pens all around the world,” said John Grant, a se­nior an­a­lyst for air travel firm OAG. He called Kansas City’s woes “con­sis­tent with ev­ery other air­port project” he’s seen.

Keith Thomp­son, a prin­ci­pal at Gensler, an ar­chi­tec­ture firm that was part of a bid put for­ward by Jones Lang LaSalle to build the new KCI ter­mi­nal, said dras­tic changes in plans and costs are the rule rather than the ex­cep­tion. Ear­lier in the KCI de­bate, there was some ques­tion whether the city should build a new ter­mi­nal or ren­o­vate two of the ex­ist­ing ones.

“My gut would tell me a third of what comes out of a mas­ter

plan gets done in the ex­pected time­line,” Thomp­son said.

This is not to ex­cuse the mis­steps and in­fight­ing that have sur­rounded the KCI project. It is cur­rently stalled while some air­lines dig in their heels on the $1.4 bil­lion price tag and all the car­ri­ers that serve KCI strug­gle to come to agree­ment on how to share op­er­at­ing costs at the ter­mi­nal.

It’s the lat­est in a se­ries of hic­cups that Coun­cil­woman Teresa Loar, who rep­re­sents the North­land dis­trict where KCI sits, said have made the process “dread­ful.” She said the project has been “jinxed from the get-go.”

“There was a good way to do it, ... and we haven’t done any­thing good,” Loar said. “I mean, we haven’t done any­thing right.”

Late last year, the air­lines re­quested a sec­ond anal­y­sis to con­firm the $1.64 bil­lion price tag. Of­fi­cials told the City Coun­cil Air­port Com­mit­tee on Thurs­day that the air­lines were pre­sent­ing the re­sults of that study, which con­firmed the to­tal, to their ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cers.

Avi­a­tion di­rec­tor Pat Klein said five of the eight air­lines that serve Kansas City had pre­vi­ously stated that if the cost es­ti­mate was con­firmed, they would be com­fort­able with the price tag. He said mul­ti­ple times they were do­ing their “due dili­gence.”

“But (the air­lines) do this all the time, Pat,” Loar said. “I don’t know why this is such a prob­lem, be­cause they’re do­ing ren­o­va­tions and pay­ing for air­ports ev­ery day as far as I know, so I don’t know why this is one is so hard.”

Kansas City Mayor Sly James ap­peared frus­trated by con­cerns about the process and said mem­bers should take a “chill pill.”

“There’s noth­ing that’s off track. There’s no­body that’s afraid this is go­ing to fall through,” James said. “The air­lines are go­ing for­ward. They wanted to check the num­bers; they checked the num­bers.”

He said in an in­ter­view that there was noth­ing “strange or weird or scary about this process” and called it nor­mal for a project of its size.

“We’re not putting a McDon­ald’s at 39th and Main,” James said. “This is some­thing that has a ton of mov­ing parts. … and they have to all mesh.”

A quick look at other air­port projects that have had their own share of dif­fi­culty:


The new in­ter­na­tional arrivals ter­mi­nal is due at Sea-Tac in May 2020, as­sum­ing the project stays on its re­vised sched­ule. That’s eight months later than orig­i­nally planned, ac­cord­ing to the Seat­tle Times. The project’s nearly $1 bil­lion bud­get far sur­passes an early es­ti­mate of $608 mil­lion.

“It started out as ... $608 mil­lion,” Port of Seat­tle Com­mis­sioner Peter Stein­brueck said in a March 2018 meet­ing. “Then it went to $684 mil­lion. And then in Au­gust of 2017, $790 mil­lion was ap­proved by the com­mis­sion. And now we’re told there’s $146 mil­lion more to be added to that.”

Months later, the cost rose again to $968 mil­lion.

Of­fi­cials at­trib­uted the mush­room­ing ex­pense to a tight con­struc­tion mar­ket that has pushed up la­bor costs. Im­prove­ments in bag­gage-han­dling ca­pa­bil­i­ties added to the fi­nal price. It also took far longer than ex­pected to ne­go­ti­ate a guar­an­teed max­i­mum price, knowns as GMP, for the project, a com­mon con­tract pro­vi­sion that caps the over­all cost.

“I will ac­knowl­edge that the GMP has been two months away for two years, and that has prob­a­bly mis­led you all as to when it was com­ing, and I deeply re­gret that, but it ap­peared to us that it could be done,” said Richard Graves, se­nior di­rec­tor of cap­i­tal de­vel­op­ment for the Port of Seat­tle.

Sea-Tac is also note­wor­thy be­cause Clark Con­struc­tion, Edge­moor’s par­ent com­pany — and part of the con­sor­tium that will con­struct the new KCI ter­mi­nal — is the project’s con­trac­tor. Port of Seat­tle of­fi­cials have said they have had is­sues with Clark, in­clud­ing in­ac­cu­rate cost es­ti­mates and fail­ure to keep the de­sign within bud­get.

Mayor Pro Tem Scott Wag­ner, who rep­re­sents the 1st Dis­trict at-large and is run­ning for mayor, has held Seat­tle’s project up pre­vi­ously as a cau­tion­ary tale, point­ing to the cost over­runs.

“There would be a price, work would go on, and then the price would go up and work would con­tinue,” Wag­ner said.

That made him hes­i­tant to trust KCI cost es­ti­mates that came from early, lim­ited de­sign work.

In terms of how Kansas City’s woes com­pare to Seat­tle’s, “There’s re­ally no way to know at this point un­til we get some level of sta­bil­ity and un­der­stand­ing of the price,” Wag­ner said.

Greg Col­evas, a di­vi­sion pres­i­dent for Clark, said in an in­ter­view last year that the orig­i­nal price guar­an­tees price be­came un­sus­tain­able af­ter the dis­cov­ery that soil at the job site was con­tam­i­nated by by­poly­chlo­ri­nated biphenyls, or PCBs.

New up­grades to the planned bag­gage sys­tem, re­quested by the Port of Seat­tle, along with fa­cial­recog­ni­tion soft­ware and an emer­gency gen­er­a­tor sys­tem added about $70 mil­lion in costs, he said.

The worst seems to be past, how­ever. Agree­ment on a price ceil­ing was reached last fall, and crews have made sub­stan­tial progress. Last month, they placed the fi­nal struc­tural beam for the skele­ton of the build­ing.


Calls for more pub­lic tran­sit link­ing pas­sen­gers to the air­port have way­laid a $3 bil­lion plan to up­grade and ex­pand an ag­ing ter­mi­nal.

The San Diego County Re­gional Air­port Author­ity had in­tended to start the search for a de­signer in De­cem­ber by is­su­ing a re­quest for qual­i­fi­ca­tions. But Den­nis Probst, vice pres­i­dent of de­vel­op­ment, said that’s now ex­pected later this year.

Probst said the author­ity is all for more tran­sit, but that the the re­gion is years be­hind the air­port in plan­ning.

“The chal­lenge is that the re­gion—the point where the re­gion is with re­gard to mak­ing those de­ci­sions—is not as far along as we might like in or­der to be very def­i­nite about our plan­ning,” he said.

An en­vi­ron­men­tal study the author­ity re­leased sparked con­cern over the new ter­mi­nal’s po­ten­tial to worsen traf­fic con­ges­tion. Stake­hold­ers, in­clud­ing the Port of San Diego, which over­sees ship­ping, de­vel­op­ment and en­vi­ron­ment along the 34-mile bay, also say the re­port un­der­es­ti­mates the true toll the project will take.

“The port is in fa­vor of ... up­grade and ex­pan­sion, but we want it done the right way so other agen­cies aren’t left to fix the prob­lems cre­ated by the project, in­clud­ing traf­fic im­pacts, lack of tran­sit, growth in green­house gas emis­sions, noise and sealevel rise readi­ness,” the port’s act­ing pub­lic in­for­ma­tion of­fi­cer, Bri­anne Page, said in a state­ment.

The push back put the project be­tween six and 12 months be­hind, Probst said. But the air­port author­ity is work­ing work­ing more closely with the port and other agen­cies.

“I think it’s fair to say that the tenor is pos­i­tive and we are start­ing to see the light at the end of the tun­nel, and we don’t think it’s a train any­more,” Probst said.


Kansas City still has a cou­ple hur­dles to clear be­fore crews break ground on the pro­posed sin­gle ter­mi­nal. Af­ter that, con­struc­tion car­ries its own chal­lenges.

Air­port projects can be de­railed by any num­ber of site is­sues, from dis­cov­ery of arche­o­log­i­cal ar­ti­facts to soil con­tam­i­na­tion or — in the case of New Or­leans — con­struc­tion doovers.

“Un­fore­seen is just that,” Gensler’s Thomp­son said. “They’re un­fore­seen.”

New Or­leans’ $1 bil­lion, 35-gate ter­mi­nal was set to open next month. That was be­fore crews dis­cov­ered that a sewer pipe­line was sink­ing into the soft Louisiana soil. The TimesPicayune re­ports that the rib­bon cut­ting will have to wait un­til May — a full year later than the orig­i­nal date.

The $7.5 mil­lion fix was hardly a bud­get buster, but res­i­dents will have to wait that much longer for the new ter­mi­nal.

In a col­umn pub­lished in The At­lantic, Christo­pher Sch­aberg a pro­fes­sor at Loy­ola Uni­ver­sity New Or­leans, called it a “world-class air­port for the end of the world,” and ques­tioned the wis­dom of build­ing it given the city’s risk for cli­mate change-re­lated dis­as­ters.


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