Yes, competition should give voters best possible new KCI terminal

southMayor Sly James and City Manager Troy Schulte initially blew it while offering up a new Kansas City International Airport plan in mid-May.

Behind the scenes, they knew about Burns & McDonnell’s idea to provide a privately financed terminal. But the two top city officials never opened this approach up to other companies. Instead, they kept the firm’s no-bid idea secret until unveiling it as a fait accompli.

That was a bad move all around.

As I wrote on May 14, “But what’s the harm in having Burns & McDonnell compete with others — in Kansas City or elsewhere — for this project? That could reduce costs. It could lead to designs that better serve future passengers. Most importantly, allowing competition would reduce (if not eliminate) the possible public perception that the skids were somehow greased at City Hall for Burns & McDonnell on this project.”

Fortunately, pushed by AECOM of Los Angeles — a competitor of Burns & McDonnell in the aviation design business — James and Schulte reversed themselves this week.

Now, there’s a way for others to bring forward privately financed proposals to build a new, convenient KCI terminal for just under $1 billion.

James on Tuesday seemed to give himself a pat on the back for recognizing this: “Once (Burns & McDonnell) came up with the idea of private financing without control, without having an ownership in the airport, that became the best deal. Now that’s smoked out other people who want to compete. … Now, we’ll find out if they’re the best deal.”

Is the three-week timeline to submit something too short, as some on the City Council already have complained? Perhaps, although at least AECOM has plenty of experience and presumably could respond quickly.

And if the council ultimately wants more information and to take more time than now contemplated past a summertime deadline? Then the members owe it to the traveling public to look into the matter longer.

There’s nothing magical about holding a November election, even though James and Schulte seem intent on doing that. As I have noted before, several major Kansas City area projects have had fits and starts making it to the ballot box, where they eventually have been approved by voters. A revamped Truman Sports Complex and myriad plans for a downtown arena are examples.

True, the construction of a new KCI is a project that’s been under consideration for years. Yet the plans haven’t ever become cast in stone, with solid drawings and financing schemes behind them, much less put to a public vote.

It’s good that James and Schulte were forced to change their minds about the no-bid approach, even for a hometown firm.

The public should hope that competition among Burns & McDonnell, AECOM and whoever else might come forward will give voters the best possible airport plan to support — whether it’s in 2017 or 2018.