Archived columns and blog posts by Matt Elliott

Island airport debate: not a good day for Robert Deluce

By: Metro Canada Published on Wed Apr 02 2014

Don’t go looking for definitive winners or losers coming out of yesterday’s Toronto City Council debate on the proposed expansion of Billy Bishop Island Airport. There aren’t any.

Not yet anyway. Maybe next year, after the election, when the issue is set to come back to council, one side in this debate will be able to claim total victory. Maybe by then councillors who are still on the fence about the issue will have enough information to make a decision. But for now, this crazy long debate continues. Hell, this city will probably still be arguing about the island airport even as we approach the heat death of the universe.

I will say though, even if his dream of island jets isn't dead, yesterday didn’t seem like a great day for Porter CEO Robert Deluce. When he first advanced his plan to expand the island airport last year, Deluce appeared to be angling for a speedy approval with few strings attached. But there’s been nothing speedy about the process, and yesterday council enacted a bunch of tough amendments that attach a bunch of conditions to the deal.

The poison in question made its first appearance with a motion from Coun. Pam McConnell, who made it clear that council’s support of the amended recommendations proposed by staff didn’t “imply City Council’s support for or against the airport expansion or the introduction of jets.” That passed 40-4, with just Mayor Rob Ford, Coun. Doug Ford, Coun. Giorgio Mammoliti and Coun. Frances Nunziata opposed. (The Porter-supporting Fords opposed all but one amendment, sometimes joined by two or three others.)

That was significant because it underscores a mostly-overlooked point in this whole debate. Yes, re-opening the tripartite agreement governing the airport allows for the possibility of runway expansion and jets, but it also opens the door to infrastructure improvements and operational reforms that could happen even if expansion plans don't go through. There’s a chance this whole thing will backfire on Porter, leaving them with no jets, no expanded runway and a more restrictive operating environment.

That was followed by a motion by Coun. Mike Del Grande, with an assist from Coun. Josh Matlow, who offered a key amendment. Thanks to them, council decided that any infrastructure costs arising from negotiations come at no cost to the city. In addition, those costs can’t be funded from funding envelopes made available to the city by other orders of government, including the Build Canada fund. So federal funds that could otherwise be used for housing or transit can’t be redirected to airport-supporting infrastructure.

Finally, there was Vaughan. After much debate and a 33-11 vote, his motion means staff have to report back to council should there be a change of ownership for any of the airlines that service the airport. (Currently that's Porter and Air Canada.) A report request might seem innocuous, but in procedural terms it means councillors will have opportunity to halt negotiations regarding expansion should Porter be sold to another airline or attempt an IPO.

There were a series of other amendments too, relating to public health, the environment and road changes. Collectively they make it a lot harder for Deluce to get quick approval, access government funding to pay for any infrastructure needed to support increased passenger volumes or use the promise of expanded service to leverage a corporate sale or IPO.

In other words, say goodbye to any hopes that airport expansion will be government subsidized and quickly pave the way for a quick corporate sell-off.

Deluce, of course, has always maintained he has no intention of selling Porter as part of his efforts to expand the airport. And he’s downplayed concerns that taxpayers would pay the freight. So, hey, maybe none of the amendments passed by council actually mattered much. Maybe Deluce won’t have any problem working within this more restrictive environment. Maybe opponents were too cynical in their aspersions and suspicions.

Maybe. After yesterday’s debate, we’re set to find out.

This post was originally published at on 2014-04-02T00:00:00.000Z

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Matt Elliott

City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
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