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Critics of Porter’s plan for jets at Toronto island airport are way off course

Forces are lining up against the bid by Porter Airlines to get permission to fly jets out of the Toronto island airport. That is a shame, because many of the objections to allowing jets are weak or capable of being resolved with a little effort.

When Porter first made its proposal, the biggest concerns were about noise from the jets and how a lengthened runway would encroach on the harbour and the lake. Those concerns have since faded.

A report from City of Toronto staff concedes that the Bombardier CS100 jets that Porter wants to fly would "likely" meet existing noise limits, even if we won't know for sure till the plane is certified by next May. An attached consultants report says the plane is "expected to be certified with noise levels similar" to the turboprops Porter flies at present and that the new planes should "operate at or below" current noise limits.

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In any case, Bombardier has guaranteed Porter that the plane will meet the limits. Consultants also conclude that the new jets – part of a quieter, cleaner new generation of aviation technology – will meet air-pollution standards.

As for the runway, Porter wants to lengthen it by up to 200 metres on each end to let the jets land and take off. Opponents say this would mean "paving the lake," as Adam Vaughan, Porter's fiercest city-council critic, once put it. But the consultants who reported on the issue found that the longer runway would "maintain the existing depth" of the current Marine Exclusion Zone, a buoyed-off area to keep boats away from planes. In other words, boats would still have just as much room in the harbour, though the buoyed zone might have to be widened slightly for the rebuilt runway.

With the greater noise and lake-paving arguments debunked, opponents have been shifting their line of attack. They now say it is not so much what would happen to noise levels or the lake waters that is the issue. It is what would happen on the ground. Mr. Vaughan argues that it would cost as much as half a billion dollars to build better infrastructure to deal with the increased traffic that jets would bring to the airport.

Spending that much would be extravagant and, fortunately, it should not be necessary. The number of flights that can travel in and out of the island is limited by the fact that it has only one runway. The number of slots for arriving and departing planes is expected to remain the same.

The number of passengers could go up regardless because the jets are bigger and carry more passengers than the turboprops. Consultants estimate it could lead to an "incremental increase" in the airport's capacity, to 4.3 million passengers a year from 3.8 million at present. In a high-growth scenario, that could grow to 4.8 million. But if the worry is that the airport will just keep growing and growing with no end in sight, why not negotiate with Porter to put a cap on the number of annual passengers?

The passenger tunnel currently being built under the Western Gap should ease the flow of the increased traffic. More work will be needed to make sure that vehicular and other travel to the airport from the city side does not grow tangled, as it can do even now.

This is the most legitimate of the concerns about the jets proposal, but it is far from insuperable. The city staff report's estimate of $180-million to $300-million for ground-side infrastructure includes expensive projects like tunnels, bridges and streetcar lines that may not be necessary. Better airport shuttle service and a few road improvements could make a big difference. Consultants put the cost of one round of road upgrades at just $2-million to $3-million.

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The airport is a valuable asset for Toronto. An ambitious city would try to overcome the concerns over introducing jets, not allow itself to be paralyzed by them.

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