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cityscape

Report: Porter’s Request to Expand the Island Airport Is “Premature”

Toronto's top civil servant says we don't have enough information to make a decision on Porter's expansion plan yet.

For the past few months the municipal government has been exploring the implications of expanding the Billy Bishop island airport, at the request of Porter Airlines. The raccoon-loving regional carrier, which right now goes to 18 destinations relatively close to Toronto, wants to start flying further afield, to the west coast and Caribbean. In order to do that it needs to start flying jets, and in order to do that, it needs to either lengthen the runways at the island or find a second home at Pearson. Porter’s been interested in the first of those options, and has been lobbying City Hall to reopen the agreement governing Billy Bishop, to permit the expansion.

City staff have now filed their first big report on the matter, and the news isn’t good for Porter. While the city manager is recommending that Toronto initiate a broad discussion about the future of Billy Bishop airport, when it comes to Porter’s expansion plan specifically: “approval of this request is premature.”

From the outset some councillors, including local representative Adam Vaughan (Ward 20, Trinity-Spadina) had concerns—about noise, waterfront activity, and prioritizing a private company’s economic growth over the area’s residents. Rob Ford was a huge proponent, and for a time it seemed like some councillors were coming around: an initial spurt of negative comments was quickly replaced by “let’s wait and see.”

The city manager’s report was one of the big things they were waiting for. Here are its key findings:

  • The Toronto Port Authority hasn’t yet submitted its report on the expansion plan, and as a result Transport Canada has not yet been able to comment on its feasibility;
  • Data from preliminary tests of Bombardier’s CS-100 jets, the brand new model Porter wants to fly out of the island, “is insufficient” to determine whether the planes comply with existing noise regulations;
  • The relevant stakeholders (Porter, Transport Canada, the port authority, and others) haven’t had a chance to respond to issues raised by the public and by outside consultants in the course of the City’s examination of the issue; and
  • More broadly, “there is not a clear direction or plan for airport expansion.”

What the city manager is recommending is that everyone involved launch a process that is less reactive—not driven exclusively by Porter’s request, but a from-the-ground-up assessment of the airport and its role in the city. Any such discussions, he advises, should be predicated on a shared commitment to “measures to improve the existing conditions around the airport related to aircraft noise, airport and ferry operations, traffic congestion, conflicts with the Waterfront and City Schools and the Harbourfront Community Centre, construction management, taxi management, and public realm improvements.”

If adopted, the staff recommendations will turn this into an election issue. The timeline they propose includes a broad series of consultations that would take place in the coming months, with staff reporting back to summarize those consultations and offer a draft new master plan for the airport in March, 2015. (Toronto’s next election is October 27, 2014.) Deputy Mayor Norm Kelly (Ward 40, Scarborough Agincourt) wants council to approve the expansion plan without delay, despite the staff report, precisely because of this: he told the Globe that the next municipal administration “may be the very same people that opposed the island airport in the first place. If that’s the case, then I think the city will have lost a marvelous opportunity to grow an asset.”

The City staff report on Porter’s proposal will go to city council’s executive committee on December 5. Whatever the executive decides on at that meeting will come as a recommendation to the next full meeting of council on December 16-17.

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