Porter Airlines’ plan to bring jets to Toronto’s island airport hangs in the balance, with the city’s deputy mayor pushing for a last-minute compromise and opponents ready to kill the expansion as early as this week.
Toronto’s executive committee meets on Thursday to consider a staff report on the airport plans, and, for the first time, the city’s newly empowered deputy mayor, Norm Kelly – not the mayor – will be the chair. Staff say they need until 2015 to study the airline’s plans adequately, but Mr. Kelly has been contacting executive committee members and pushing for a fast-track deal that would bring the issue back to council before next year’s election.
That will be a tough sell.
Porter Airlines president Robert Deluce was at Toronto City Hall on Tuesday making his case to councillors, but more than a dozen have made up their minds and are no longer willing to meet with him, sources say.
The island airport has been a source of controversy for decades and will provide the first test of Mr. Kelly’s ability to shepherd council since his colleagues voted to strip Mayor Rob Ford of most of his powers and hand them to Mr. Kelly. A long-time supporter of the island airport, the deputy mayor first came out in support of a conditional approval for the expansion. Now he is trying to pull together a plan to hold off on decision-making until mid-2014, when more information is available, but before the election.
“It’s a work in process,” Mr. Kelly said on Tuesday. “There are legitimate concerns out there and you have to address them. You can’t ignore them.”
With a large contingent of councillors opposed to the expansion, especially with many questions remaining, at least one councillor is warning Mr. Kelly’s efforts to go against the staff recommendation could kill the proposal altogether when executive committee’s decision goes to council later this month.
Councillor Adam Vaughan, who represents the downtown ward that includes the airport, said there is a willingness on council to pass the staff recommendation of a delay, but any effort by the deputy mayor to push for a faster resolution will jeopardize that.
“If he wants a faster answer, it will be no,” Mr. Vaughan said. “If he is prepared to let it pass, I’m prepared to let it pass. But if he wants to roll the dice, then the only quick answer is no.”
Some members of the executive committee are keen to find a solution that addresses lingering questions about an expansion – such as noise, traffic and environmental impact – while supporting the proposal.
Executive committee member Gary Crawford said he will not fully approve anything until staff concerns have been dealt with. “Staff have already suggested that they don’t have the time to address these,” he said.
Meanwhile, Councillor Peter Milczyn, chair of the city’s planning and growth committee, said he is prepared to shelve the report at Thursday’s meeting by moving that it be received for information – which would effectively stop the debate.
“I think we have expended enough effort on this,” he said, noting city staff have other things to do, such as transit planning, that are council priorities. “Why are we spending all of this time dealing with one private company’s proposal that hasn’t been properly fleshed out yet.”
He said the deputy mayor’s idea of approving the plans with conditions is “just inviting endless negotiations to try and wear us down.”
Even Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong, who in the past chaired the committee that recommended building a bridge to the airport, said too many questions are unanswered for him to support fast-tracking the report. “I support Porter. I want them to succeed, but I have significant concerns that need to be addressed,” he said.
Mr. Ford has remained firm in his position of supporting the proposal and pushing it forward regardless of the staff recommendation.
“There are some people on the executive that don’t want to see the airport move ahead. I’m going to push it ahead. We can’t wait a year for the expansion,” he said.
Councillor Frank Di Giorgio, who also sits on the executive committee, said he is wary about putting off a decision on the airport too long.
“My gut feeling on that is I don’t want it to be an election issue and I suspect if things get delayed until 2015, it will be an election issue,” he said. “I think the merits of the proposal should be looked at outside of the politics at this point.”
Kaleigh Rogers is a freelance writer