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Toronto council votes to move forward with Porter airport expansion study

A plan by Porter Airlines to purchase jet aircraft and extend the runway at the island airport has cleared its first hurdle, with city council voting in favour of staff compiling a report on the controversial topic.

Debate on the plan that would transform Toronto's short-haul carrier into a national airline stretched for 41/2 hours Tuesday and was, at times, rather heated. Councillor Gord Perks said the city shouldn't prioritize enriching one individual ahead of its other residents, a remark that nearly led to his ouster from the council chamber. Councillor Doug Ford, the mayor's brother, took a swipe at island residents soon after, drawing jeers from the gallery and at least one loud expletive.

Mayor Rob Ford, on the other hand, delivered a composed speech and reminded councillors they were only asking for a report. Mayor Ford, who moved a surprise motion at his executive committee last month requesting the report, said councillors will have another opportunity to debate the issue in July.

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Speaking after the 29-15 vote, Mayor Ford called it "a good first step."

"I'm glad we're moving in the right direction," he said. "It's going to create jobs and it's great for tourism."

A preliminary report is expected for the July 3 executive committee meeting and will cost between $225,000 and $275,000.

A full report will be ready in October or November, staff predict, and will cost between $800,000 and $1-million. Staff had recommended the city seek funding commitments for the second phase of the study from Porter and the Toronto Port Authority, which owns and operates the island airport.

Councillor Pam McConnell first moved a motion to deny the report request, though it did not carry. Ms. McConnell also moved a motion putting the onus on the Toronto Port Authority to pick up the costs of the report, which did carry.

Robert Deluce, Porter's president and chief executive officer, said he was "gratified" by the vote and indicated the company would be willing to pick up report costs if asked.

"We certainly indicated our willingness to cover reasonable expenses associated with work that would be needed by staff in order to bring back to councillors complete information in a timely manner so that they could make a proper decision," he said. "And I think nothing has changed in that regard."

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Porter's expansion plan must be approved by the three signatories to the tripartite agreement that governs the Billy Bishop Airport – the city, the federal government and the Toronto Port Authority. The agreement currently does not allow jets to fly out of the airport.

The proposal has rekindled a bitter dispute at city hall, with some councillors complaining they were not properly consulted and that Porter is moving too quickly with its expansion. Residents have long complained about noise and environmental concerns at the airport, and David Miller rode his opposition to a bridge to the island to the mayoralty in 2003.

But Mr. Deluce, whose airline took to the skies in 2006 and has a loyal following among both the business and leisure crowds, has said the lack of meetings at city hall during the summer forced Porter to move fast. He has also said the company must abide by its conditional agreement with aircraft manufacturer Bombardier to order the "whisper jets," known as CS100s.

Mayor Ford said Tuesday he expects July's executive committee meeting to discuss the first phase of the report to stretch for 24 hours, to be followed by an eight-to-10 hour debate at council.

Several issues of concern were raised by councillors at the meeting, and Councillor Joe Mihevc succeeded in having a third-party fairness monitor oversee the matter.

Councillor Ron Moeser said he was concerned about the noise the jets would bring, and several councillors raised the issue of a continuing dispute between the city and the port authority over payments in lieu of taxes.

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Councillor James Pasternak said council too often jumps to conclusions without knowing the facts, and said it has a responsibility to learn them, a sentiment echoed by Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti.

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article, which has been corrected, contained an incomplete explanation of Councillor Pam McConnell's motions.

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