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Crowd scuffles over island runway extension plan

Porter Airlines planes landing at Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport on April 9, 2013.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

An overflow crowd sparred over the future of Toronto's island airport during an occasionally heated public meeting Thursday evening.

At issue is a proposal to extend the runway by up to 200 metres at each end to accommodate jet aircraft at the facility, which is known properly as Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport.

The meeting was part of city-organized consultations over the controversial issue. It drew a crowd that quickly overwhelmed the main room, and the proceedings, which ran over time, were at times interrupted by heckling.

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Within the first few public comments, a pro-expansion speaker was hooted for arguing that the waterfront should not be "a gated community" reserved for "the super-rich."

Shortly after, a city staffer sparked a wave of disbelief when he said they had been told to examine only the economic benefits of bringing in jets, not the economic harm. Minutes later, another city employee walked back those comments, saying that negative impacts would be included in a future report.

Jets are not allowed at the island airport under a long-standing agreement between the city, the port authority and Ottawa. But Porter Airlines, which helped revitalize the once-sleepy airport, is leading the charge to be allowed to fly jets off the island.

"We're not taking anything for granted," Porter CEO Robert Deluce said before the meeting started.

Porter argues that modern planes are quieter than the sort of jets being flown when the existing agreement was signed. Its promotional team habitually refers to the Bombardier CS100 plane it wants to use as a "whisper jet."

But opponents are not convinced.

"They say these jets will be as quiet as the current planes, but the current planes are really loud," said Cathy Barr, a scientist who lives around Queens Quay and Spadina, close to the airport.

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"The Gardiner [Expressway] is quieter than when a plane is revving."

Both opponents and supporters were strongly represented at Thursday's meeting, with duelling buttons calling for "no jets" or proclaiming "we're on board."

"It should be expanded because you can't count how many people are getting jobs from this," said cab driver Atma Singh. "More and more [passengers] are coming. People like it, they're near everything, it's more convenient than Pearson."

An updated report on the expansion proposal will go before the mayor's executive committee next week. Another town hall is tentatively expected in November, with a final report on the issue slated to go to city council in December.

The island airport had fallen largely into disuse as a commercial hub before Porter led its resurgence. Data on display at the meeting indicate that more than two million commercial passengers now fly through the facility annually. A recent survey from the port authority showed that one-third of Torontonians have used the airport.

But this success has not helped smooth out the airline's rocky relationship with some residents and local politicians.

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Former mayor David Miller campaigned on a pledge of blocking a fixed link to the airport. He won the election and the proposed bridge was not built. Some current downtown councillors remain unhappy with the noise and traffic caused by the airport, though, as well as its effect on visitors to the islands themselves.

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About the Author

Oliver Moore joined the Globe and Mail's web newsroom in 2000 as an editor and then moved into reporting. A native Torontonian, he served four years as Atlantic Bureau Chief and has worked also in Afghanistan, Grenada, France, Spain and the United States. More


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