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Urban Experience

Island airport expansion debate takes off

Angry actionists fight for park, no planes

By Stefan Dubowski

When Toronto’s politicos approved a bridge between the City’s mainland and its tiny islands just off Lake Ontario’s shore last November, it seemed the proposed expansion of the Toronto City Centre Airport (TCCA) located there would follow as a mere formality. But judging by the war of words that erupted during a debate in March, it would appear the battle over TCCA expansion is far from over; in fact, it’s just about to take off.

Advocates for and against airport expansion gathered to yell at each other on March 26 at the St. Lawrence Centre Forum, some four months after city council agreed to let the Toronto Port Authority (TPA) build a bridge in place of the ferryboats currently connecting the islands to mainland.

The bridge is largely considered a prerequisite for TCCA expansion. The TPA says the fixed link would make it easier for passengers and emergency services to access the airport.

Right now, the airport serves approximately 100,000 passengers per year. A plan courtesy of the TPA would ramp up service, such that 900,000 passengers would use the TCCA annually as a jumping-off point for short-distance destinations.

While some people say TCCA expansion would bring economic opportunities and allow the airport to fly under its own power, others say more flights spell increased pollution and noise. The naysayers also argue that expansion represents irresponsible planning that puts economics ahead of prudence.

Lisa Raitt, CEO of the TPA, said airport expansion is good for Toronto. She pointed out that visitors would win easy access to downtown if more flights landed at the TCCA, which is located close to the heart of the city -- much closer, in fact, than Toronto's international airport, Lester B. Pearson. Easier access means more visitors, and more visitors mean more business for merchants in the core, she said.

As well, expanded service would allow the TCCA to stand on its own feet, whereas today the facility requires government funds to stay afloat, she said.

Raitt’s group supports a proposal by Regional Airlines Holdings Inc. (REGCO) to set up an airline headquartered at the TCCA. REGCO would run turboprop planes built by Bombardier Inc., which happens to assemble the aircrafts at its Downsview plant in Toronto. Some say the Downsview plant workers would welcome the REGCO order for turboprop planes.

The TCCA needs more passengers to succeed, Raitt said. Given a boost from businesses like REGCO, this veritable landmark “does have a unique role to play in Toronto.”

Bill Freeman said he also believes the airport has a unique role to play in the city – as an urban park. Freeman, spokesman for Community Airport Impact Review ( Community AIR), an anti-expansion group whose members generally live near the facility, said Toronto’s islands are a resource to be treasured, not paved for runways. “If we squander it, we will be condemned by future generations.”

He said REGCO’s plan is all wrong. For one thing, since the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City were destroyed by terrorist-guided airplanes in Sept. 2001, people avoid flying. REGCO would fare no better than, say, SwissAir, now defunct.

As well, the turboprop idea is just bad, Freeman said. Financially beleaguered Bombardier can barely give away the turboprops it has built already, “because people do not want to fly in them. I think people think they’re unsafe… They’re not fast enough, they’re old.”

Shelley Petrie, executive director of the Toronto Environmental Alliance, said the expansion plan itself is out of date, putting economic concerns ahead of good urban planning. She pointed out that more planes bring more noise, and more carcinogens released into the air. “We’ve got to make better choices,” she said, advocating that the airport be shut down.

But Raitt said expanding the TCCA would be good for the environment. It would mean fewer flights at Pearson, the big airport north of the City that serves most Toronto flights. Fewer flights at Pearson translate into fewer pollution-spewing planes idling on the runway, waiting in line to take off.

Raitt also said anti-expansion arguments are half baked. On one hand naysayers claim that any airline operating out of the TCCA would fail. On the other hand, they say expansion would increase noise and pollution, as if a TCCA-based carrier would succeed to the detriment of the environment. So are the anti-expansionists saying expansion would fail, or are they worried that it might succeed? “Your arguments aren’t connecting for me,” Raitt said.

Arguments against expansion weren’t connecting for John Spragge either. This pilot earned his wings at one of the flight schools that operates at the TCCA. “That airport was there for me when I needed it,” he said, explaining that he would fight to see the facility reach viability.

But Spragge was one of the few pro-expansion people at the debate. One attendee said expansion is “taking a small failure and turning it into a large failure.” And David Miller, a candidate in the upcoming mayoral race, said expansion represents “a failure of the imagination. To expand that airport…and make downtown an industrial centre again is simply wrong.”

Raitt said the TPA needs just a few more approvals from various levels of government for the expansion to begin. But Allan Sparrow, another Community AIR spokesman, said it’s not that easy.

“City council has to sign off. And it hasn’t, because about two-dozen conditions have not been met yet. And the Minister of Transport has to sign off. He has to look at the business plan. And we just found out that a new environmental assessment is required.”

What with city council approval required, along with stringent environmental criteria to follow and a federal transport minister to woo, the debate over TCCA expansion is far from over. “This is going to go on for a long time,” Sparrow said at the end of the forum.