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Lighting and noise barriers are among major points of contention at the island airport. (Michelle Siu/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Lighting and noise barriers are among major points of contention at the island airport. (Michelle Siu/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Toronto's island airport: What's at stake? Add to ...

For David Crombie, the fight against jets at the island airport is reminiscent of the battle to stop the Spadina Expressway.

The former mayor seems to weigh his words carefully, thinking back to the 1960s-era fight against a planned highway that would have cut through the downtown, when asked about the parallels.

“The Spadina Expressway put a mirror to us to say: ‘Was this what kind of city you want?’” the jet opponent finally said. “[Island expansion] is not quite there but it’s damn close because … there’s no doubt that it will change the nature of the waterfront. So, yes, it’s a kind of identification question.”

The issue – which is coming to a head at city council – is increasingly being characterized as an existential debate for the city: Proponents say that allowing jets to fly off the island will help Toronto compete on the world stage, while opponents argue it will undermine a generation of work to revitalize the waterfront.

The debate over expanding the island airport goes to executive committee on Tuesday, with a full council meeting coming the following week.

On the table is a formal city staff recommendation to approve preliminary negotiations, under strict conditions, that provide a way to move past the current ban on jets. But waiting in the wings is a contrary proposal to lock the ban into place.

Both sides of the debate have been ratcheting up pressure, dangling ads in front of politicians and the public and touting growing lists of endorsements to their cause.

Among the biggest names to have gone on the record for expansion is urbanist Richard Florida, who says that the airport can be a crucial hub allowing the flow of people and ideas between Toronto and other major cities. A prominent opponent, the artist Edward Burtynsky, who has photographed man-made environmental damage around the world, counters that the risk to the waterfront is too great.

Is it really this binary, though? Is there not a compromise that will satisfy people who care about both the economy and livability along the lake?

The Toronto Port Authority (TPA), a so-called government business enterprise that owns and operates the airport, says there is. It has offered an interim cap on passengers and a moratorium on future changes, to see how a shift to jets is working.

The city staff report recommending negotiations also points to a middle-ground approach, suggesting a phased series of talks that would bring a vote on jets to council only after a series of issues has been addressed.

But opponents say that it was a compromise in the first place to allow Porter Airlines to fly its current fleet of turbo-props from the island. They worry that extending the runway by 400 metres for CS100 jets opens the door to airport growth that can’t be constrained by rules that could always be changed later.

Ahead of the council debate, The Globe looks into what’s at stake.

How busy will it be?

At present, there is an effective limit of 202 commercial slots – an industry term meaning aircraft takeoffs or landings – in a day.

This is a mathematical limit based on the total allowable restriction on noise, which includes noise that’s produced by medevac and general aviation flights. It means that the number of commercial slots could rise if these other types of flights were to decline, provided the overall noise limit is not breached.

At the heart of this week’s city staff report is a commitment to stopping further growth in commercial flights. The report’s recommendations, which would form the basis for talks that could lead to jets, insist that the process must be preceded by a pledge limiting the number of flights to the current cap of 202.

That represents a change from the current rules, which are based on a calculation of the noise generated by the airport. The TPA would not comment on the city’s position after the report was released, but this runs contrary to its previously stated stance.

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