This regular online series will feature interviews with fascinating and influential urban thinkers, with a focus on discussing how Toronto can become a more engaged, accessible, and sustainable city.
Sometime this year the Toronto Port Authority (TPA) will begin constructing an underground tunnel linking the Toronto City Centre Airport (TCCA) with the mainland. Standing in opposition to TPA is waterfront advocacy group Community Air. Spacing spoke with Community Air Chair Brian Iler in order to better understand their position on the issue of a “fixed-link.”
Spacing: Why does Community Air oppose an underground tunnel?
Iler: Our concern is that the tunnel is one more way that the TPA is expanding the airport, overwhelming the local community and impeding the wonderful uses that we, as Torontonians, have for our waterfront. Another issue is the financial specifics of their plan. The TPA is considering spending $50-60 million to build a tunnel and what concerns us is that their proposal is not private funding as they insist.
Spacing: What leads you to believe that expansion is possible?
Iler: TPA repeatedly states that it’s only about smoothing passenger flow. However, it really does opens up the possibility of far more planes flying in and out. A tunnel has the potential to double the capacity of people who can get over to the airport from the mainland. Doubling the number of crossings means doubling the volume of landings and takeoffs and a doubling in the amount of noise and car traffic along the Lakeshore and Queens Quay.
TPA and Porter are already ignoring constraints imposed on short takeoff and landings. They’re well beyond the agreed 120 flight limit. The airport, as it was intended to be, is not financially viable and so they are maneuvering to transform it into a much larger operation.
Spacing: What’s wrong with TPA’s financing proposal?
Iler: TPA is putting up $20 million of their own money and borrowing the rest by securing it against future income from passenger improvement fees. However, if Porter Airlines fails as we expect, money will not be coming in to pay the loan. We think they’re going to have to guarantee that loan and put public assets, such as airport lands, at risk to finance the balance. Also, if the TPA has that kind of money, then they should pay the back taxes they owe the City of Toronto, that way we can keep libraries and daycares open as well as provide the basic services that Torontonians need.
Spacing: How do you ascertain that Porter is failing?
Iler: Porter releases statistics every month and they’re still not filling more than half of their planes. Sometimes they creep up to 60% but they peaked, in terms of passenger volume, in August 2010. They’re now approximately 30% below where they were last August. They like to claim that their planes are fuel efficient and are able to run half-full. Air Canada and WestJet planes on the same route, by comparison, have equivalent fuel efficiency and are 70-80% full.
Spacing: Where does the Federal Government stand?
Iler: David Miller was once chatting with Jim Flaherty about it and Flaherty said that he decided the airport was a good idea because a couple of bank presidents said it was. That was his rationale! There’s no sympathy for Toronto within the “Harper Government.” They don’t understand downtown Toronto and disdain the kind of people living here. They also stack the TPA board with friends. You have people who worked for both Flaherty and (John) Baird on the board, as well as the former chief fundraiser for the Tories.
Spacing: What are your thoughts on Air Canada operating from TCCA?
Iler: Obviously, any increase in traffic is a bad idea. However we’re not expecting Air Canada to be there permanently. They view Porter as a bit of an irritant and it might just take a small push from them for Porter to be gone. Air Canada will then, as in the past, consolidate at Pearson. They’ll whittle down their Island operation to nothing, much to the great irritation of the TPA. In that sense, it’s just a waiting game.
Spacing: From the perspective of Community Air, how does continued operation of the airport affect waterfront development?
Iler: We’re pretty impressed by the activities of Waterfront Toronto but it’s very clear that its mandate doesn’t extend to the 80 hectares of prime waterfront property that is TCCA. Waterfront development, in terms appropriate residential and recreational uses, is stillborn on the west side of the waterfront. So while wonderful things are happening in the east, Waterfront Toronto can’t contemplate repurposing that land until the airport is gone. The possibilities, however, are limitless if resources are available. It’s got water on three sides and it’s part of the Islands. Sydney, as an example, built an iconic opera house on its waterfront.
Spacing: How do you respond to critics who are either tired of this issue or reiterate that TCCA predates residents?
Iler: A segment of the population loves the airport and defends it vigorously. Another part is cynical about affecting change. If you’re going to give up and be cynical then you’re not going to be comfortable with people who keep raising tough questions. People say to us, “Why don’t you get a life??” There are also others saying, “I just hate that airport,” “Thanks for keeping up the good work” and “We understand that sometimes it’s a lonely struggle.” Discovering that Porter scandalously violates the takeoff limit also gives us energy to fight for what we believe is right.
The airport was here first but it was altogether different than what exists now. It was only for private planes before the Federal Government opened it up for commercial flights. An agreement was then signed limiting the number of commercial short takeoff and landings. That constraint still exists today but Porter and the TPA ignore it. If that rule was respected, I think the airport would be something most people could live with.
Photo by MusicMoon