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Ottawa moves to clear path for Toronto island airport tunnel

Ottawa is planning a regulatory change to smooth the way for a contentious pedestrian tunnel to Toronto's island airport.

The federal government has introduced a draft regulation that would reverse the prohibition against "a bridge or similar fixed link" connecting the mainland and the Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport.

CommunityAIR, a local group that opposes the airport, characterized the move as an admission by the federally-operated Toronto Port Authority (TPA) that its proposal to build an underwater tunnel violates the Canada Marine Act.

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"Instead of recognizing that this proposed tunnel is a complete waste of scarce public resources, the Harper government now is moving to legalize something that was clearly illegal," Brian Iler, the chair of CommunityAIR, said in a release Friday.

"The tunnel is a huge example of the 'gravy train' - or perhaps more appropriately here, the 'gravy plane' - where some … $48-million or more in public assets are proposed to be applied for the benefit of a private business."

The TPA has previously argued that the tunnel is not "a bridge or similar fixed link."

Chairman Mark McQueen said the TPA decided to pursue the minor change to take a potential arrow out of its opponents' quiver.

"We were always on sound footing in our minds," he said. "Recognizing that there were those who would like to see that airport shut and will do anything they can to make life difficult as best they can, leaving anything to chance wouldn't have been prudent."

Paul Martin's Liberal government amended the Canada Marine Act in 2005 to prohibit "a bridge or similar fixed link" at the request of Toronto city council and Mayor David Miller, who campaigned against a bridge in 2003 and killed the plan soon after he was elected.

Although the new city council hasn't taken a formal position on the tunnel, Mayor Rob Ford has said he supports it.

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The TPA announced in January 2010 that it intended to pursue a private-public partnership to construct the pedestrian-only tunnel beneath the Western Gap, after Ottawa rejected the project as a candidate for stimulus funding.

The TPA is instead relying on the airport's users to cover the costs, expected to be between $50-million and $60-million, according to Mr. McQueen.

An extra $5 was added to the cost of all tickets about a year ago.

The TPA is expecting the final results of an environmental assessment on the project in the next month. It has narrowed down its choice of private sector partner to three consortia.

"It was our position all along that the tunnel was a fixed link and was prevented by the federal regulation. They said it didn't. I guess we were right," said Councillor Adam Vaughan, whose ward includes the mainland across from the airport. "We've also said that this tunnel is a complete waste of money. We're probably right on that too."

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