MCKINNEY, Texas — The McKinney City Council took a big step toward making commercial service out of McKinney National Airport possible when it voted to call for a bond election but there is still a long way to go before travelers can ever start booking flights.
Last Tuesday, the City Council voted unanimously to put a $200 million bond package on the ballot this May. The bonds would support two-thirds of the cost for a $300.7 million project to build a 144,000-square-foot terminal, 15-acre aircraft apron and 2,000 parking spaces. The airport would serve as an alternative to Dallas Fort Worth International Airport and Dallas Love Field Airport for residents in the fast-growing communities in the northern part of the Metroplex.
McKinney's terminal would open in 2026 with four gates offering four to 20 flights daily. Eventually, the airport would have 16 gates and be able to offer as many as 40 daily departures by 2040.
Before that happens, though, McKinney voters need to approve the bond package. While city leaders have pushed for the project, three residents appeared at the council meeting to speak out in opposition. They argued that the city's projections about economic impact and number of passengers are "biased" and overly optimistic. They also said the project would not be the best use of city funds.
Mayor George Fuller perhaps put it best when he said the bond election is "a step, not the final step." Even if voters approve the bond package, the commercial terminal doesn't necessarily become a done deal. Assistant City Manager Barry Shelton has said the city has multiple "off-ramps" it can take if it decides it does not want to move forward with the project.
"A lot has to happen before the wedding actually begins and the 'I do’s are said," Fuller told the audience at the council's meeting prior to the vote.
Here's a look at what has to happen for commercial flights to start taking off from McKinney National, assuming the bond election passes:
Completion of an environmental assessment
McKinney plans to apply for federal, state and local grants to cover about $100 million of the cost for the commercial terminal. The federal agencies require the city to go through an environmental review process.
The city has already begun that process and plans to have a draft environmental impact statement ready in June, Shelton said. While that means the document will not be ready for residents to see until after the May bond election takes place, Shelton said the document is mostly completed at this point and the city plans to host a couple of open houses in the coming weeks.
If the environmental impact statement identifies any issues, then the city would need to complete mitigation work before it can move forward with construction, Shelton said. The environmental review will cover issues like noise, traffic and the impact of commercial service on air and water.
Issuing bonds, winning grants
After the environmental review is completed, then the city needs to actually obtain the funding by issuing the bonds and applying for grants.
While Shelton has said the the city has a good track record of winning federal grants, doing so is never a sure thing and could depend on the political climate in Washington.
On the bond side, if economic conditions change drastically, it could have an impact on the city's ability to issue debt.
"Just because this passes, it doesn’t mean we go spend $200 million," Fuller said. "There is a whole lot to do before we’re ever committed."
Councilman Patrick Cloutier compared the bond election to when someone applies for a mortgage and a real estate agent asks for a mortgage approval letter.
"That’s where we find ourselves," Cloutier said. "We're asking for level of approval."
Once the city has completed its environmental review and obtained funding, then construction could finally begin.
Officials hope to break ground in 2024 and have the terminal open by 2026. However, construction projects can often experience delays. During the last few years alone projects have suffered delays due to the pandemic and resulting supply chain issues.
Getting deals done with carriers
Of course commercial aviation can't happen at McKinney if the city doesn't attract any carriers.
Shelton has said several airlines, ranging from legacy carriers to low-cost and ultra-low-cost carriers have expressed interest in serving McKinney. He has declined to disclose which carriers have expressed interest because of non-disclosure agreement.
Interest does not necessarily mean a deal and airlines are constantly evolving their strategies. While demand for traveling remains high currently in the aftermath of the pandemic, the airlines remain constrained from increasing capacity too much because of issues like a pilot shortage and aircraft delivery delays.
If demand declines and the constraints on capacity don't become resolved, then it could be harder to get deals done.
Shelton said the city projects the commercial terminal becoming self-funding within seven to 12 years. However, he said that projection assumes a "good collection of airlines."