A standing-room-only crowd packed Toronto's city council chamber Tuesday to speak out on a controversial plan to expand the Island Airport.
Close to 200 speakers are expected to address a special meeting of council's executive committee on the divisive plan that is shaping up to be a defining issue for candidates in this year's campaign for mayor.
In the lead-up to Tuesday's debate, two leading challengers to Mayor Rob Ford urged the committee to take quick action – with John Tory asking for a fast deferral of the matter until more information is available and Olivia Chow pressing for a prompt rejection of the plan.
Mr. Ford, for his part, continued to advocate for a speedy approval and Deputy Mayor Norm Kelly is working on his own airport motion to move up the decision on whether to allow jets at the Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport.
The issue has for many months divided councillors and attracted the attention of both big-name supporters and opponents – the latter arguing that the proposal would threaten revitalization along the waterfront. Tuesday's marathon meeting is the latest step in a long debate that is expected to move to city council in April.
A group of councillors is expected to try to impose a ban on jet traffic at that point while Mr. Kelly is pushing for a conditional approval of jets at that meeting instead of going to a vote in 2015 with a new council as recommended by staff.
While the executive committee meeting is expected to go into the evening, Mr. Tory asked its members "to be brief" and not vote on the airport plan at all. "The Executive Council should immediately defer the debate on the Billy Bishop airport," he said in a statement.
Ms. Chow urged members to turn down the plan. "We should leave it as it is," she said in a statement.
On his way to the meeting, Mr. Ford told reporters he also wants quick action. "I support the Island Airport wholeheartedly. I've never changed my position on it," he said as he headed to the special meeting. "We should get on with it. Stop playing the games."
Also Tuesday, the Toronto Region Board of Trade went on the record as supporting the expansion plan.
A new report for city staff says more study is required before city council decides on the plan by Porter Airlines to bring jets to the waterfront airport.
The report recommends a phased approach that would bring the matter back to council for final approval some time in 2015, after this year's civic election.
Porter Airlines head Bob Deluce spoke to the executive committee in the late morning, laying out the economic benefits of his business and saying Torontonians are in favour of expansion.
During the subsequent lunch break, he told reporters he was looking for "certainty" from politicians on the question of whether he should be allowed to fly jets off the island.
"Staff have to move forward from the framework that they've developed," he said. "It's a great piece of work, but they now have to negotiate with the Toronto Port Authority and the federal government and put it in a document. I don't think it's fair to ask council to really look at anything until they see what it is, what it looks like in its final form. I think at that particular point in time they can make the determination as to whether the benefits are in fact in excess of any other concerns that there might be."
But Mr. Deluce did not answer directly when asked whether it would be an acceptable level of certainty for the issue to come back to council for another vote next year, as spelled out in the city staff recommendations.
"I'm only focused on the executive committee today," he said. "I think executive committee will have to make a determination as to whether it goes to council or whether it goes back to staff or how they deal with it. But that's their decision."
Adam Vaughan, a vocal critic of expansion, said the number of unknowns attached to the proposal means that Mr. Deluce is effectively asking council to "approve first and figure out all the other dangers afterwards."
He pointed specifically to the ultimate size of the marine exclusion zones, arguing that municipal politicians would be powerless if they approved an airport expansion and regulators in Ottawa subsequently determined these safety buffers need to be bigger than the city had envisioned.
"If they want a decision, the only quick decision they can get is no," Mr. Vaughan said. "What he's asking us to do is say yes before we have the facts, and then water down the conditions while we negotiate what the terms are. So effectively we say yes first, we sell you the house, then you tell us what you're going to pay for it."
Executive committee member Councillor Peter Milczyn said he would like to focus attention and government money in other areas such as electrifying the rail link to Pearson Airport or extending the Crosstown light-rail line so it goes to the international airport.
He said he suggested that the committee could "receive" the staff report, an action that would put it on the shelf with no further discussion.