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Renewed attacks on island airport roll back the clock

Jets? On Toronto Islands?

A mighty hue and cry went up the moment Porter Airlines announced it would ask for permission to extend a runway at Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport to accommodate new jet-powered passenger planes.

City Councillor Pam McConnell said that Porter was showing a "breath-taking level of arrogance and disregard for Toronto residents." Councillor Shelley Carroll told CP24 television there was "broad shock and disapproval" at city hall.

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Councillor Adam Vaughan seemed to suggest that adding 168 metres to each end of the main runway would endanger vast Lake Ontario. "This is our lake, this is our only lake," he said. "Do we want it filled in with asphalt and used for jets?"

Even former mayor David Miller, a long-time island-airport foe, weighed in. "The Island Airport is a throwback to a time when Toronto had turned its back on the waterfront and allowed it to be a home of highly polluting toxic industries," he wrote on The Huffington Post. "The Toronto waterfront should be a place for people, not planes."

But surely one need not exclude the other. The last few years have established beyond any doubt that Mr. Miller and his fellow airport critics are wrong. A busy airport doesn't mean the end of life as we know it for the waterfront. The two are getting along quite nicely, in fact.

Traffic at the airport has grown from a paltry 25,000 a year in 2005 to 1.9-million in 2012, an inspiring made-in-Toronto success story. At the same time, tens of thousands of people have moved into downtown condominium towers within blocks of the airport action. Porter and the airport have become both symbols of and contributors to the rise of Toronto's downtown, which is thriving as never before.

Despite all the predictions of doom, the airport hasn't ruined the recreational potential of the waterfront. People still flock to the Toronto island parks, walk and cycle along the harbourfront and splash at the beaches within sight of Billy Bishop. Would flying regional jets out of the airport along with the existing turbo-props really turn this tale of successful coexistence into a catastrophe?

It seems unlikely in the extreme. Porter says that the Bombardier planes it is buying are a new generation of jet far cleaner and quieter than those in existence when governments banned jet traffic at the island. It promises to comply with the current noise limits even with the new jets. It says it won't change its flight paths, which travel over water to limit any annoyance to residents. The runway extension will fall within the marine exclusion zone that already surrounds the airport, the company insists, so boaters will have no less room to sail or paddle.

The ongoing attacks on the island airport are weirdly out of date, rolling back the clock to a time when expanding it was a burning issue that helped Mr. Miller come to office. Ten years later, the debate is over everywhere but at city hall.

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Porter and its convenient downtown hub are wildly popular.

The construction of a new passenger tunnel under the Western Gap promises to make travel out of the island even more attractive. An opinion poll showed that 87 per cent of Toronto residents agree the airport is a valuable asset for the city. One study found that Billy Bishop generated $1.9-billion a year in economic activity. Now the bold Canadian entrepreneur behind Porter's rise, Robert Deluce, says he wants to build on its success by purchasing millions of dollars in new aircrafts from a Canadian company. And this is a bad thing?

Incredibly, some councillors continue to insist Billy Bishop should be shut down. "It has not been a success," Councillor Glenn De Baeremaeker said on CP24. "It has taken away parkland that is meant to be shared by all people in the city of Toronto." Yes, it may be nice for business travellers, but what is more important, he asked – that "a few people have convenient air flights from downtown Toronto or hundreds of thousands of people being able to go to Centre Island and enjoy the magnificent view."

The point is that they can have both, even with Porter's jets.

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About the Author
Toronto columnist

Marcus Gee is Toronto columnist for the Globe and Mail, Canada's national newspaper.Born in Toronto, he graduated from the University of British Columbia in 1979 with a degree in modern European history, then worked as a reporter for The Province, Vancouver's morning newspaper. More


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