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Toronto Growth-cap feud puts island-airport expansion talks in jeopardy

Porter Airline flights take off from Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport on March 24, 2014.

FRED LUM/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

The expansion of the island airport is already in trouble, with a dispute over growth caps threatening to nip discussions in the bud.

The roadblock comes only weeks after Toronto city council approved a process that could lead to an eventual vote on jets at the downtown airport, but only after a long list of criteria are met. Among them was the condition that the Toronto Port Authority, which operates the facility, agrees to various limits on passenger and flight volumes.

The TPA has said that they accept caps in principle but have resisted binding restrictions. They reiterated that position after the council vote, prompting a new warning from deputy city manager John Livey that agreement on this issue is "essential" for advancing the file.

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"When they say they're not willing to cap they're saying 'you deal with it, it's not our problem,'" expansion opponent Adam Vaughan said Wednesday, noting the congestion woes already hurting the neighbourhood.

"Well, if that's the starting point, we can't talk about expansion."

The TPA offer of an interim passenger limit of about 3 million people annually is not nearly good enough, according to Mr. Livey. In a recent letter made public Wednesday, he offered a sharp rebuke of the position the port authority had laid out.

"The itemized commitments and responses in your letter fall well short of addressing Council's final decision," he wrote.

Mr. Livey cited specifically the part of the council decision that requires the port authority's commitment to "satisfy the conditions precedent for Phase One," which mandates limits on aircraft movements and sets a passenger limit of 2.4 million people annually.

"Receiving the Port Authority's written confirmation of the above is essential for moving forward," the deputy city manager wrote.

In an interview Wednesday, the CEO of the port authority, Geoff Wilson, said they hope the issue of caps can be deferred.

"We're not saying no to caps, we're just saying no now, let's do the right order of events, get the information, and then we can have those discussions," he said.

"What we heard at council was that councillors wanted more information and that's the information that we're going to provide. And we would hope that the city would like to come and continue to work with us in close collaboration. The door's open, we're going to keep it open, and I think it's up to them to decide whether or not they want to continue with this work with us. We would hope that they do and we will continue to have that door open to them."

Expanding the airport to allow jets has been one of the hottest issues in the city this year, with both sides ramping up public-relations campaigns. Earlier this month, council passed unanimously a motion that could lead to a bigger airport. But it came with a long list of conditions that must be met before expansion could be considered. If those conditions are met, the issue will come back to council for a final decision.

How to manage growth at the airport was a strong subtext of the debate that gripped council. Under the current agreement, the airport could grow to about 3.8 million local passengers. The report written by city staff before the recent council debate calls for the TPA to agree to the much lower cap of 2.4 million local passengers per year as a precondition for broader talks.

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