Archived columns and blog posts by Matt Elliott

Way too many unknowns in Porter plan for island airport jets

By: Metro Published on Wed Dec 04 2013

After months of duelling public campaigns and political wrangling, last week city staff released their much-anticipated report on the thorny issue of allowing Porter to fly jets out of Billy Bishop Airport on Toronto Island.

The report’s conclusion? When it comes to this plan, nobody really knows anything.

Is the extension of the airport runway into Lake Ontario feasible? Unknown. Is enough flight data available to confirm the proposed jets will meet noise requirements? Unknown. Are there workable plans to mitigate increased traffic in the area caused by the expansion? Unknown. Will there be an impact on birds and other wildlife? Unknown. Is there even a plan in place to store the tanks of jet fuel? Unknown.

And of course: is this proposal consistent with the city’s long-term vision for the waterfront? You guessed it. That's unknown too.

Despite all that, Porter has pushed this proposal forward like a runaway, um, plane. I get why Porter wants to fly jets — there’s lots of money in serving warmer destinations — but it’s never been clear why the decision needs to be made so quickly. Surely Porter understands that council needs to do its due diligence before rubber-stamping their plan? That there are major implications to changing the tripartite agreement that has governed the airport for decades?

Apparently not, because even after the release of this report — which ultimately recommends delaying any decision until March 2015 — Porter has continued to push for council to approve their jet plan. They’re hoping the city’s executive committee green lights the proposal when they meet on Thursday.

The false urgency and lack of data around this issue reminds me of last year’s casino debate, where councillors were asked — presumably with a straight face — to endorse the idea of a downtown Toronto casino without any real estimate on what a casino would mean for city revenues. Similar to what we’re currently seeing play out with the island airport, the issue seemed to be driven by a desire to get council to approve something in advance of figuring out the details.

And like with the casino issue, the jet question points to underlying dysfunction in governing structures. The city report repeatedly points out troubling issues related to their relationship with the Toronto Port Authority, the federal agency in charge of operating the airport.

For example, a Sept. 18 letter from Deputy City Manager John Livey calls Porter’s request to operate jets “unusual.” Livey writes, “we would have expected this request would first have been reviewed by TPA and Transport Canada and then brought forward to City Council for its consideration.” TPA, though, has refused to take a position on whether they support their tenant’s request to fly jets out of the airport it runs. They even declined to take part in city-run public consultations. They’re waiting for council to weigh in first.

In addition, despite consultant reports suggesting the infrastructure needed to improve traffic congestion in the airport area would cost somewhere in the area of $180 million to $300 million, the report notes, “the TPA has indicated it is not in a position to commit to funding what it terms ‘major city-side infrastructure projects.’”

Despite that, TPA does ask the city to consider — as part of this totally unrelated proposal — extending the agreement governing the airport for another 50 years.

Meanwhile, city staff point out that the TPA continues to operate the island airport without a master plan. Such plans are commonplace in the aviation industry and staff call the lack of one for the island airport a “major deficiency.” Without one, the report says, “there remains a gap in knowledge as to how [the airport’s] operations fit into the Central Waterfront Area and the Official Plan.”

Considering all the unknowns in the report, calling it a “gap in knowledge” seems charitable. From here, the gap looks more like a chasm.

This post was originally published at on 2013-12-04T00:00:00.000Z

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Matt Elliott

City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
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