A Porter Airlines plan to order jet aircraft and extend the runway at Billy Bishop airport – transforming Toronto's short-haul success story into a national carrier – has rekindled a bitter, decade-old dispute at city hall and laid the groundwork for a fight expected to run all the way to the council floor.
Porter announced its conditional purchase of as many as 30 Bombardier CS100 planes in a flashy news conference Wednesday at the island airport, an announcement that took many city councillors – whose support could make or break the plan – by surprise.
At an event Thursday, Mayor Rob Ford said he "didn't have a problem" with Porter's expansion bid.
"If these jets are as quiet as they say they are – it creates jobs, it's great for business. But again, obviously I have to look into it. The extension of the runway. Obviously there's an agreement through three levels that we have to obviously reopen. But, overall, I don't see this being a bad thing. I think it's a good thing."
Porter, which took to the skies in 2006 and is known for cheeky advertisements featuring a raccoon, needs approval from the three signatories to the agreement that governs the airport – the city, the federal government and the Toronto Port Authority. The airline wants to overturn a jet ban at the downtown airport it calls "outdated" and to extend the runway 168 metres into the water at each end.
The Harper government signalled it will keep its distance until it learns where city council stands, and the port authority did much the same. But the fireworks quickly went off at city hall, with some councillors complaining they were not consulted, and questioning whether a project to dump lake fill at one end of the runway meant the expansion had been quietly started already.
Vague remarks from the mayor about the announcement one day before it was made led to questions about whether he had been briefed. On Thursday he confirmed that he had discussed the matter with Porter's CEO Robert Deluce a few days ago.
Councillor Doug Ford, the mayor's brother, was quick to show his support, saying the airport would be "a corn field" without Porter. He also lashed out at a councillor who opposes the plan, Karen Stintz, calling her appointment to the Toronto Transit Commission the biggest mistake the Ford administration has made.
Residents have long complained about the noise and environmental concerns at the airport, and David Miller rode his opposition to a bridge to the island to the mayoralty in 2003.
Mr. Deluce said he did not think it was presumptuous to ink a conditional deal with Bombardier.
He acknowledged in an interview that it was a bit of a "chicken and egg" situation. "It seemed to us to be the logical way," he said, "but we're not taking anything for granted."
Mr. Deluce said he hoped the airline's track record for being "very, very considerate and mindful of not only the environment but our neighbours" would help overcome opposition to the expansion.
Porter executives hatched the expansion plan a year and a half ago with a global search for a new aircraft. They selected what Mr. Deluce described as a "whisper jet," the quietest commercial aircraft in production.
Lobbyist records show Mr. Deluce met with several Toronto councillors in January and February, including Councillor Ford. But Mr. Deluce said he was not giving them a heads-up about Porter's ambitions. Rather, he said, he was giving them a first-hand look at the new pedestrian tunnel under construction between the airport and the mainland.
Exactly how the matter will play out at city hall, and when, is unclear.
Jackie DeSouza, a city spokeswoman, wrote in an e-mail that the city has not received information from Porter regarding the proposal.
"If the city receives a request to amend the tripartite agreement, staff will report to city council and seek direction. We can't speculate on what may happen at council," she said.
Some councillors were adamant any amendments would require a vote.
"There's all sorts of procedure to go through. But the one place where a vote will be truly democratic … is in our council chamber," said councillor Shelley Carroll, who expressed opposition to the Porter plan.
Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong, who helped forge the plan to build a bridge to the airport, noted that, at that time, Porter told the city it had no intention of putting jets on the island.
"That is a significant change, and we are going to have to consider that," he said. "I think it is going to be a difficult sell to this council in these conditions and in this environment."
Mr. Minnan-Wong noted that the city has been over this ground twice before – once when the decision was made to build the bridge and again when it was cancelled. He said he expects the new issue to be just as controversial.
"It was a lengthy and long and vigorous debate then. There's no reason to indicate that it's not going to be in round three the same length of time, the same vigorous debate," he said.
Councillor Adam Vaughan, who said he is opposed to the Porter plan, said "paving over the lake and filling in the aquatic environment is just something I don't think Torontonians should, or will, or want to consider."
Councillors Vaughan and Pam McConnell also took aim at the port authority for a lake fill project the port authority said was aimed at securing the waterway near the airport from boaters.
"This proposal by Porter seriously calls into question about whether the original intent of the lake fill was to quite literally lay the groundwork to expand the airport," Ms. McConnell wrote in a statement.
Pamela McDonald, a port authority spokeswoman, said the project has nothing to do with extending the runway.
She would not respond when asked whether the lake fill material could be used on a runway.
A spokesperson for federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, who is the Conservative political minister for the Greater Toronto Area, said the government will take a wait-and-see approach until council chooses a direction.
"The government of Canada will refrain from commenting or weighing into the debate until Toronto city council has had time to consider the proposed changes," Kathleen Perchaluk said.
Mr. Miller, the former mayor, called Porter's plan dramatically wrong for Toronto. He said the city needs a waterfront for people, not planes, and that the proposal would interfere with an area undergoing a dramatic revitalization.
"When I campaigned in 2003, I said that if we didn't stop the island airport expansion there would be jets and people criticized me for saying that, they said I was fear mongering," he said in an interview. "…I saw it coming. It's inevitable."
With reports from Elizabeth Church and Steven Chase