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Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport is pictured on Friday, July 26, 2013.Michelle Siu/The Canadian Press

The Toronto Port Authority has won a key early showdown with the city on the controversial issue of expanding the island airport to allow jets.

City staff are participating in an environmental assessment for the expansion without the TPA having signed off on limits on the numbers of passengers and aircraft. This comes only months after Toronto's deputy city manger warned that agreement on that issue was "essential for moving forward."

The port authority, which manages the island airport, recently announced the firm they had chosen to lead the EA. David Stonehouse, director of the city's Waterfront Secretariat, said that city staff were involved in the selection process and in drafting the EA's terms of reference, calling it a chance to encourage the TPA to consider "the bigger picture."

He said Toronto's interests had to be represented in the process, given the taxpayer money being spent by the TPA, but said "you'll have to interpret that" when asked to confirm the city had changed its position.

In April, Toronto council unanimously approved a framework that could eventually lead to an expansion of the island airport, potentially allowing long-haul jets to fly from there. But the resolution came with a long list of conditions and included a requirement that the port authority commit in writing to a limit on passengers and aircraft movements.

Deputy city manager John Livey subsequently exchanged a series of letters on the issue with TPA head Geoff Wilson. In them, Mr. Wilson reiterated the port authority's stand that firm caps on the numbers of passengers and aircraft were premature, and that there was lots of other work to do first. Mr. Livey insisted then that a formal letter agreeing to caps was required.

The city now appears to be conceding the point to the TPA.

"It seems practical to assist them in the work that they're doing," Mr. Stonehouse said. "The situation now is that the technical work will get done first and then, at some point in the future, or not, we'll start negotiating tripartite agreement changes, which would require the commitment to the caps and phasing framework."

Anshul Kapoor, with the advocacy group NoJetsTO, said it was their understanding that an agreement on passenger caps had to precede any other progress.

"It's clear that the Toronto Port Authority doesn't take the city seriously, it doesn't take the city council proposal seriously," he said. "The city's at a crossroads right now, either they stand up for what they believed in and what they had been tasked to do by council, or they bend over and they let Toronto Port Authority bowl them over once again."

Mr. Wilson, CEO of the port authority, said that he was "very pleased" the different stakeholders were able to work together.

"The city and the TPA have managed to find a way to work very collaboratively on this," he said, adding the various parties have "stepped up to the table and said 'we all want the same thing, we all want good information that we can base our decisions on.' "

Downtown councillor Pam McConnell, a cautionary voice during the airport debates, insisted the city was not adopting the TPA's position. She said they were at the table "as watchdogs" and characterized it as the pragmatic choice.

"It is very typical of the port authority to decide that they're going to go it alone. They've done it and done it and done it and done it," she said.

"In the perfect world, you would not have a TPA that would go barrelling off against explicit instructions by council, explicit instructions followed up by the deputy city manager in a letter and two letters by [me] clarifying that they had no right to do this. But they're doing it, they're paying for it and off they go. And that's what they do. But at the end of the day it will not come to council, I don't care what the EA says, it will not come to council until all of the conditions have been fulfilled."