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The Globe and Mail

Toronto island airport tunnel will make a good thing even better

The island airport is such a success and such an obvious asset for the city that it is hard to believe that someone once ran for mayor on resisting it.

In 2003, David Miller campaigned on a pledge to stop the construction of a bridge from the mainland to the airport. He won, city council pulled its support for the bridge, and air travellers have been riding the short-hop ferry to the airport ever since.

The fevered struggle over the future of the airport seems like ancient history now. Thanks mainly to the success of Porter Airlines, the island airport has become a popular and convenient downtown alternative to Pearson. Around 1.5 million passengers passed through it in 2011, double the traffic in 2009, and officials expect that number could reach two million this year.

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These are figures that Mr. Miller could not have imagined a decade back. With such numbers using the airport, a fixed link to the island is vital.

Instead of a bridge, the Toronto Port Authority is to build a $82.5-million, 240-metre tunnel under the Western Gap. It will whisk passengers to and from the terminal at Billy Bishop airport on four moving sidewalks, eliminating the wait for the ferry and turning the surge of people coming off the boat into a steadier, more manageable stream.

As Prime Minister Stephen Harper put it on Friday at a ceremonial groundbreaking, it is an "eminently sensible idea." Funding will come from a portion of the airport improvement fee that passengers pay when they fly, so governments will not bear any direct cost.

In fact, Toronto will save money on the deal. The city was facing a $20-million to $22-million expense to build a new water main to the Toronto Islands. That would have required digging a deep-rock tunnel under the harbour bed. Now the city will run the water main and new sewer pipes alongside the airport tunnel, trimming $10-million from its costs.

Mayor Rob Ford called the tunnel "fantastic news" for the city and for the waterfront. Lifting a ceremonial shovelful of soil, he called Friday "the day that nobody ever thought was going to come."

The years of futile quarrelling between the city and the port authority and the federal government have receded into the past. All three were represented at Friday's groundbreaking and all three are enthusiastic about Billy Bishop.

Of course, the airport still has its critics. Local Councillor Adam Vaughan was down at the waterfront on Friday with a handful of protesters who don't like the noise and taxi traffic around the airport ferry dock. He calls Billy Bishop a "boutique service." If so, it's a pretty popular boutique.

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Mr. Miller feared the airport would delay waterfront revitalization by preserving "industrial" activity there. He said anything but a "sleepy commuter airport" would conflict with the city's plans. In fact, the bustle of the airport has added to the vitality of the waterfront and the city's downtown.

With its pitch to the hip and the urban, Porter drew strength from the downtown condo boom and added to the city's new cool factor. Taking Porter rather than making the trek to Pearson is part of the appeal of living downtown. The airport is an asset for the financial district, too. Suits can be on a flight to New York or Chicago in minutes.

The tunnel is scheduled to open in the spring of 2014.

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About the Author
Toronto columnist

Marcus Gee is Toronto columnist for the Globe and Mail, Canada's national newspaper.Born in Toronto, he graduated from the University of British Columbia in 1979 with a degree in modern European history, then worked as a reporter for The Province, Vancouver's morning newspaper. More

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