A plan that opens the door a crack to commercial jet traffic at Toronto Island Airport could be grounded within days if a group of city councillors gets its way.
A staff report released Thursday recommends formal talks on the proposed airport expansion – but only after firm new limits on the number of passengers and aircraft are put in place. A senior bureaucrat said the phased approach wouldn't see the matter back at council for a vote before 2015 – making the controversial proposal an election issue, one on which the mayoral candidates are sharply divided.
But it may not get that far. Councillor Pam McConnell said that she and others will move, at the April 1 council meeting, a motion she described as an "elegant compromise" that would continue the ban on jets. Even without jets, she added, some of the problems raised in the city staff report should form the basis for talks.
"Councillors will be making a decision: Their decision will be to keep jets or to not keep jets," Ms. McConnell said. "I think the majority of councillors want no jets."
The staff report goes first to the executive committee, on Tuesday, and calls for talks between Toronto, Ottawa and the Toronto Port Authority, which manages the airport. Negotiations promise to be difficult, with the TPA having proposed a much higher limit on passengers and their chair having already dismissed the idea of a cap on the number of planes.
Deputy Mayor Norm Kelly, long a supporter of airport expansion, said the latest report represents a "significant improvement" from one in November that said it was "premature" to approve an expansion plan. Contrary to the advice of staff, he said he will push to get the required studies completed quickly, allowing a final decision before the election.
But Councillor Gord Perks, who opposes the lifting of the jet ban, said that won't happen. "The only way this isn't an election issue is if council says no jets and the TPA goes away."
Among the major mayoral candidates, Rob Ford supports island airport expansion and Olivia Chow is opposed. David Soknacki, Karen Stintz and John Tory have been reluctant to commit themselves, pointing to the unanswered questions the expansion plan raises.
The staff report seeks talks that will answer some of these questions before taking a recommendation back for council to approve or vote down. Only after a positive vote could construction begin for an expanded runway.
However, the report states that talks must be preceded by an agreement by the TPA and Ottawa to cap local passengers at 2.4 million per year – the TPA has offered a voluntary interim cap of about 3 million – and limit the number of daily slots to 202.
That number of slots – each of which represents an aircraft landing or taking off – is the de facto cap now. But it is not a firm limit and is a function of the total allowable amount of noise. Under the current situation, if the number of medevac or general aviation flights were to diminish, the volume of commercial aircraft movements could rise past 202.
Mark McQueen, the chair of the TPA, told The Globe and Mail recently that there was no reason to limit the number of slots and that such a requirement would only be a sop to those who wouldn't support expansion anyway. On Thursday, the TPA issued a statement that did not address this issue and declined further comment.
The statement also did not respond to the city's position that the TPA would be responsible for between $15- and $20-million worth of traffic improvements on the mainland. The TPA has said that they have done their part with regards to fixing congestion in the area and suggested they could not afford to do more.
"It is our hope that this report can be the next step in a constructive process that will bring us to a conclusion that respects the interests of all involved, without demanding restrictions that disadvantage passengers and undermine the airport's long-term viability," Mr. McQueen said in the TPA statement.