LORINC: City has upper hand with Island airport

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In his first substantive move as council’s pilot-in-chief, deputy mayor Norm Kelly last week engineered a two-month deferral of the island airport jets proposal, which teed up much griping from the No Jets crowd but also a long-overdue offer late Friday by the Toronto Port Authority (TPA) to engage with the City on a full review of Robert Deluce’s gambit to expand Porter’s service.

The City, it appears, may finally have the TPA in a corner, and it would be a shame if city council didn’t take full advantage of its improved bargaining position.

The key point, from where I sit, is that this issue should not be treated as a simple thumbs-up/thumbs-down decision on the prospect of introducing jets to Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport (BBTCA).

Quite apart from the endless back-and-forth over noise, pollution and the economic role of the airport, there are formidable planning issues to be addressed with the current operation, and the debate over the jets has opened that door.

There are also interesting opportunities for the City to better integrate the airport with the rest of the downtown. To get there, however, the City has to engage with the TPA as much as the TPA has to engage with the City.

And the first step involves getting past the regulatory denial that is written directly into the City’s official plan.

As noted in the clear-eyed Urban Strategies study that accompanies the City’s staff report, Toronto’s Official Plan designates the airport as parkland, presumably as a hedge against the possibility that the Tripartite Agreement will not be renewed in 2033. The study correctly, in my view, predicts that we’re not going to put this airplane back in the hangar; the island airport has been operating continuously since the late 1930s, and it is difficult to envision the conditions that would cause the current commercial uses to flag so drastically that 18 years from now we’ll be ready to turn the whole area back into a wetland.

But that official park designation — plus lingering local opposition to the airport and the TPA’s juvenile brinksmanship — has prevented the City from systematically tackling the urban planning and transportation problems that now plague Eireann Quay and the approaches from Queen’s Quay, Bathurst and Lakeshore. Urban Strategies recommends that Council amend the OP to reflect the reality of the permanent airport — a point significantly downplayed in the staff report to the executive committee. The staff report does, however, say the City and the TPA need to put their institutional heads together and develop a master plan for the BBTCA and its environs, as is done with most other airports.

So at the risk of inviting abuse on the comment string of this post, perhaps we can all thank Robert Deluce for forcing the City to think more practically — not about red herring issues such as noise and condo resale values, but rather about resolving the worsening traffic nightmares on the streets leading to the dock.

There’s little debate about the impact of the cars and taxis streaming onto the Quay: the adjacent parks are fenced off and inaccessible. The traffic and air quality risks to pedestrians and children attending the waterfront school are grave. In particular, the noise and emissions from the traffic, combined with the existing airport operation, negatively affect the students, as Toronto Public Health’s Health Impact Assessment study concluded.

The City’s consultants estimate that traffic on the Quay could jump by 20% if Council decides to re-open the Tripartite Agreement and permit jets. But they also point out that the current peak period passenger/hour counts are still only half of the maximum allowable traffic without jets (1730, compared to 2,470 with jets). And there’s good reason to think that under the BBTCA’s current operations, the traffic will eventually reach those thresholds.

The City’s transportation consultants laid out several scenarios for dealing with the congestion, from short-term measures ranging from relatively inexpensive fixes (short-term parking, changes in left-turn rules on Lakeshore and Queen’s Quay, etc.) to much more capital intensive solutions: the construction of a dog-leg extension of Dan Leckie Way out into the lake to provide a relief valve; new TTC shuttle bus service; and even the development of a $165 million streetcar spur/loop down to planned passenger entrance building at the foot of Eireann Quay.

The consultants also suggest either hourly passenger caps or amending to the Tripartite Agreement to include modal split thresholds. The problem with both proposals is that the City can’t unilaterally enforce the caps, and it’s not clear what would be the consequence to the TPA/BBTCA if not enough passengers were arriving by public transit to the BBTCA instead of private vehicle.

Furthermore, for reasons not clear, the consultants favour public realm improvements that strike me as unrealistic overkill: a $300 million pedestrian tunnel to the north end of Norway Park, for example, or the $60 million scheme to drive a road out into the harbour (an explicit contravention to the waterfront secondary plan). The report also summarily dismissed the streetcar extension, partly because it insists on burying the loop so passengers can disembark directly into the new tunnel. (The report adds that a streetcar spur alone wouldn’t address the peak demand.)

In my view, the City should take a much harder look at the possibility of designing a grade level streetcar and establishing frequent shuttle bus service down to the end of the Quay, with some accommodation for taxis as well as a complete ban on private vehicle access. Lastly, the City should push the TPA and the federal government to impose a per-ticket surcharge plus a revenue sharing agreement that would see the funds used to underwrite the cost of transit and public realm improvements to Eireann Quay and the immediate vicinity.

The TPA, with the backing of its patrons in Ottawa and at Porter Air, have a long history of obstructionism on the subject of the airport’s operations and its financial obligations to the City.

But perhaps we’ve reached a turning point: the very popularity of Porter’s service may well prove to be the thing that undermines its future viability. As the traffic congestion into the precinct worsens with each new seat sale and added destination (not to mention the increased convenience of the tunnel), the time-hassle premium over Pearson International diminishes – an inexorable dynamic that will escalate when the Union-Pearson air-rail link goes into service in 2015.

I suspect TPA officials well know the situation on Eireann is a wretched mess, just as they likely realize that Deluce dramatically overplayed his hand in the summer with his insistence that the City ram through the jet approvals.

In fact, I’d reckon the TPA increasingly realizes it’s going to have to play ball with the City, with or without the jet plan, if the agency hopes to protect BBTCA’s value proposition (and the associated fee revenues for its own coffers).

So as the balance of power shifts, the City’s single best negotiating tactic is to revamp the Official Plan, do nothing to improve vehicular circulation, and fashion an ambitious transit access strategy to anchor a new master plan for the airport.

The TPA will blink. (In fact, I think it already did.)

18 comments

  1. Excellent article. This will help support the case for no expansion FOR Porter at the BB Airport.

  2. You say:

    “It is difficult to envision the conditions that would cause the current commercial uses to flag so drastically that 18 years from now we’ll be ready to turn the whole area back into a wetland.”

    This assumption underlies the entire balance of your piece.

    In fact, the history of commercial operations at the Island Airport is littered with failure:

    City Express, when the airport was first opened up to commercial flights in 1983, lasted until 1990, when it became bankrupt.

    Air Ontario (which morphed into Air Canada) commenced operations in 1991, but its business at the Island Airport had dwindled to almost nothing by 2005.

    How’s Porter doing?

    While its CEO, Robert Deluce, would have you believe it’s fabulously successful, the evidence points elsewhere:

    Its sole attempt to sell its shares publicly, in the spring of 2010, failed miserably, when it was revealed that, notwithstanding Deluce’s frequent statements that Porter was profitable, it had accumulated losses to March 31, 2010 of $44,505,000, of which $5,972,000 had been incurred in the first three months of 2010 alone.

    Porter commenced reporting its monthly passenger load data in July, 2009, but abruptly stopped last April when those numbers disclosed that its growth stuttered to a halt in 2012, declining, on a year over year basis in five of the last seven months it reported.

    Here are is revenue passenger miles reported for the first quarter of 2012 and 2013:
    2013 2012 Change
    RPMs (millions) 187.9 194.2 -3.3%
    ASMs (millions) 339.9 339.2 0.2%
    Load factor 55.3% 57.3% -2 pts

    Porter’s profitable business comes from Bay Street, but that isn’t enough,:It flies planes, even with incessant sales, on average, less than 60% full – Air Canada and WestJet are well in excess of 80%.

    A dwindling and apparently unprofitable business, it would seem.

    There’s been no disclosure of any kind since, although it is clear that if money was being made, another IPO would have been promptly attempted.

    Porter’s financial position would be far worse if the TPA actually paid its fair share of property taxes to the City: since the deal the TPA has with Porter is that Porter pays its share of Airport operating costs (and no more), since Porter has 85% of the available slots, Porter would be obliged to pay most of the arrears up, too – now in excess of $50M, we understand.

    We’ve suggested the first demand the City must make to Porter, in contemplating jets, is for full financial disclosure, as it would be a shame to allow the runway extensions, and jets generally, on our waterfront, if Porter’s not likely to be around.

    Given the above, the current Airport traffic mess, its extreme conflict with all other waterfront uses, and the serious health impacts of current Airport operations (as carefully set out in recent Board of Health reports),one can understand why waterfront communities are not keen to accept commercial operations at that Airport as a permanent fixture.

    Brian Iler, Chair, CommunityAIR

  3. John Lorinc, thanks for taking time to actually read relevant documents regarding the island airport. Most other reporters haven’t and treat the issues as political or emotional. Yet, the proposed jet expansion is primarily an urban planning issue, and we are still waiting to hear from Toronto’s chief planner. Why? Your comments about noise and real estate values being irrelevant are a bit flippant. The value of my own home above the lake is about 1/3 less than a comparable condo further uptown and so are other condos here due to the proximity to the airport. Not negligible. We can hear engine run-ups from the airport through closed windows, though we live 1.5 km away. When planes fly close by our roof garden, conversations are drowned out. Did you know that? But my personal life aside, the Waterfront belongs to everybody and people from all over GTA enjoy it as their “summer cottage”. Let’s not take chances by handing it over to the unknown business of Robert Deluce. Going to Pearson for your long-distance trips is no hardship.
    Ulla Colgrass, member of York Quay Neighbourhood Association (YQNA)

  4. Brian,

    Part of the reason Porter can’t fly full is that the Q400s are actually rated for a longer length runway (the length of the sought after extension, in fact) for MTOW. The BBTCA runway length is very close to the minimum runway length the Q400s need.

    In fact, it would be interesting to see how Air Canada’s finances fare on the YTZ-YUL run.

  5. Thank you for your carefully researched and informed article. The Porter profitability (or more accurately lack of it) figures are alarming as are all figures related to enlarging runways, handling already overwhelming traffic problems, effects on residents, especially school children, and the negative consequences that will hamper the enjoyment by the millions of visitors and tourists who flock to our waterfront every year.

  6. Thanks for the article,, but John please dont thank Deluce for “forcing the city” to finally think about transportation issues pertaining to the airport. The community, and most importantly the parents of neighbourhood children have been fighting Since I took office to solve transportation issues related to the airport non-stop for seven years.

    We have demanded new sidewalks, crossing guards, turn restrictions, safe intersection, re-configured taxi stands, limits on speed, speed bumps, a new traffic study, restrictions on turn movements and red light cameras.

    At each and every turn we have been threatened with legal action, council opposition all aimed at stopping the city from acting to solve obvious issues. Further publicity campaigns that have morphed into media campaigns, that seek to discredit the community and their concerns. Even progressive journalists dismiss waterfront resident with a paternalism that is decidedly not good parenting.

    When plans to expand the ferry terminals staked a claim on city parkland last year, and when the Toronto Port Authority launched its new passenger tunnel, we seized the opportunity to demand a comprehensive traffic study for the area. That study was getting set to produce real results when Deluce opened a new front in the fight. Jets.

    Deluce didn’t bring the city to a potential resolution any more than the tunnel under construction will bring John Lorinc’s family to a day at the nude beach. In fact he has set back solving the dilemma back by at least a year. If Jets are approved the problem will never be solved.

    Forget the debate about turning the Island airport into a facility the size of the Ottawa International Airport. It’s never going to happen. But while we put Deluce’s mad expansion plans to rest please remember that the school children, the residents of the Bathurst Quay community want to be remembered. Their plight is not new to City Hall. Nor should it be new to anyone who has followed the debate. The current configuration is bad, bad for travellers, bad for local airlines, bad for the waterfront, but most of all it’s bad for people.

    You dont need to be a rocket scientists, nor a jet engineer, you just need to be a good neighbour; fix the problems now.

    Adam Vaughan

  7. I recall Porter was initially intended as a short-haul commuter style operation. Now Deluce is trying to go head-to-head with Air Canada et.all. Florida, Las Vegas, Vancouver etc. is _not_ a local or commuter operation. In fact, Porter can fly to Vancouver right now as far as I understand; it would just require stop-off to refuel rather than flying non-stop like Air Canada.

    Speaking of Air Canada, they and others (Air France, Luthansa !!) will all want in!

    Enough is enough. Stop this nonsense now.

  8. “At each and every turn we have been threatened with legal action, council opposition all aimed at stopping the city from acting to solve obvious issues.” Cllr Adam Vaughan.
    “Is there anyone in this room who believes planning in Toronto works?” Cllr Peter Milczyn.

    Both these comments were said this past week. Councillor Milczyn is Chair of the Planning, Growth and Management Committee and Councillor Vaughan is a member.

    It’s hard to fathom why City Staff ignore the physical well-being of Toronto children and why the PG&M is so blinded. (You should see what goes on there!)

    Too many people believe Toronto’s problems started with Ford being elected Mayor! Wake up – if anything is going to work again in the city we need to have a decent, well-funded/staffed Planning Department and take the councillor-planners out of the mix.

  9. It’s overwhelmingly obvious – jets are not the right way to go…as evidenced by anyone who cares about people, community, health and environment. Oh, and realistic feasibility…based on data.

  10. Chicago did the right thing. They shut down their waterfront airport, and precious few people regret that decision.

    We have a great opportunity to turn BB airport into a car-free medium-rise high-density neighbourhood. It would be beautiful – a Venice of the North.

    There is an existing enormous waiting list for Toronto Island housing, and many applicants who ponied up hard cash for a failed chance to win the lottery to even get on the waiting list. This shows the huge demand that exists to live in a car-free neighbourhood. Right now, this choice is being denied to the people of Toronto. That is just plain wrong.

  11. On top of all the other concerns, if jets are allowed at BBTCA, I recently learned there will need to be a 35-metre-high wall along the runways (or parts of them) to accommodate the noise and engine blasts. That’s complete insanity for this island airport location. If this happens, instead of seeing water, trees and beaches at the islands, it will be an ugly industrial area, like it was in the 1970s. No Jets, No Expansion!

  12. John…thanks for pointing out how major urban planning issues are ignored while important details are simplified down to provide media soundbites. It’s obvious that the issue us about more than jets, but the overall costs (financial, social, environmental etc) that come from airport expansion.

    To Brian Iler, I think John was trying to say that the airport itself is unlikely to disappear, even if airlines come and go. Even if Porter somehow disappears there will still be an airport and airport uses (general aviation, air ambulances, airborne media) at least until 2033 and probably beyond.

    I find it sad that Toronto can find the money to pay 1 billion or more extra for a subway extension but cannot find the money to build the East Bay front LRT (only about 300 million to put transit service in the East Bayfront & Portland developments from Day 1 ). In fact, these proposed streetcar improvements for the airport should be rolled into the East Bayfront line as one big Waterfront LRT…Then maybe it would get the necessary funding.

    Another thing missing from this debate is the role of rail service. We already know that Metrolinx will have the Union-Pearson Express running by 2015 and electrification is being talked about. If the proposed terminal station at Bathurst Yard is built (for both the Kitchener GO line and Don Mills & City Line…aka DRL) then a shuttle bus and additional streetcars will be very helpful to connect people directly to the rail network (at Bathurst & Front as well as Union Station).

    And of course if Canada finally built a high-speed rail line…well, let’s say it would end the airport debate pretty quickly…but that is a story for another day…

    Cheers, Moaz

  13. Build real transit connections to Pearson (not a Bay Street express train at $25 a trip) like other cities have and there be much less interest to fly jets out of BB.

    I find it odd that across the city many houses have signs on their lawns supporting flying jets out of BB. Of course if you don’t live by the waterfront and only realize the benefits and not the drawbacks of the expansion, why wouldn’t you support it. Weird.

  14. I echo Councillor Vaughan concerns and while I thank your opinion there are some other things that might be worth mention. How about the city force the TPA to pay back the $40-$50 million dollars of taxpayers money to the city first!

    FIX CURRENT ISSUES FIRST! Also forgot to mention the board of health UNANIMOUS decision to recommend against expansion because of current issues and how expansion would SIGNIFICANTLY INCREASE CANCER, CARDIOVASCULAR & RESPIRATORY ILLNESSES.

    There is so much to say and i would NEVER THANK DELUCE, for his own self interests and LYING, he doesn’t give a DAMN about illness, only lining his own pockets and then selling a failing airline who won’t open his books.
    Thank you

  15. The airplane noise is much worse at Pearson because airplanes there are much noisier and take off and land over land, whereas at the island airport planes take off and land over water and the CSeries is much quieter than older aircraft (e.g. older A320s used by Air Canada, although these will soon be replaced with quieter 737MAX) used at Pearson. As usual there is a double standard with poor neighbourhoods like Rexdale and Malton being ignored and rich waterfront residents getting more political power.

  16. I’m with Patrick Smyth. Councillor Vaughan, can you please push for more money in the budget to hire some more planners? The planning department is already woefully understaffed, with 65 current vacancies. How are we going to handle all the problems of our growing city if we don’t have the people required to plan properly?

  17. As part of this year’s budget I have in fact spearheaded an initiative to hire more planners and for the first time a mandate to fund and produce both avenue studies and heritage conservation district studies has now been achieved. The backlog on outstanding and council authorized studies will be retired within 5 years. On the community planning front, extra neighbourhood planners to hold more public meetings are now being hired. extra staff for the studies are also needed. These additional resources for more proactive planning and a stronger department were achieved in a council vote prior to the actual budget process as part of a review of the service plans for each department. Only my motions on planning passed through council. All other motions were referred to budget committee, a place where good ideas go to die. Planning Lives!

    – Cllr Adam Vaughan

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