Cleared for takeoff

Island airport debate grounded while lobbyists work city hall


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The way things are going, Toronto Island Airport may be ramped up for more commercial aircraft with a mere scintilla of citizen input. The backroom campaign now obscuring the public debate doesn’t bode well either for democracy or clear skies.Already one city council committee meeting on the matter was cancelled earlier this month, denying dozens of activists an opportunity to put their objections on the record, while proponents of the expanded airport, including well-connected lobbyists and influential unionists, have been frantically working the backrooms at City Hall and in Ottawa. Indeed, downtowners may soon find themselves overwhelmed by the distant roar of turbo-props before they know what has hit them.

The main player is former Air Ontario owner Robert Deluce, who is banking on starting a new regional airline service out of Toronto Island Airport in 16 months.

Under the current rules governing the Toronto Port Authority’s now money-losing Island Airport, Deluce’s Regional Airlines Holdings Inc. (REGCO) could make well over 100 flights in and out daily. And within four years, he says, he hopes to ratchet up the number of regional passengers going through the airport to 800,000 a year.

“It’s very manageable and can be done very much keeping in mind the environmental sensitivities that exist at that location,” Deluce tells NOW.

The beleaguered Port Authority is already salivating at the increased revenue, but Deluce still has to sell City Hall and the feds on his $550-million proposal to build a bridge over the western channel as well as a new airport terminal that would host a fleet of 15 new, locally built Bombardier Q400 turbo-prop aircraft.

Standing in his way are progressive city councillors who have long opposed an expanded Island Airport, along with former Toronto councillor Allan Sparrow’s group, Community AIR, a coalition of Island residents, waterfront condo dwellers and downtowners who want the airport replaced by more green space and parkland, and even a modest hotel and a biosphere overlooking the inner harbour.

Sparrow’s group has been making the case that more planes would not only mean increased toxic emissions into our already smog-filled urban air, but would also actually hinder any future port lands development.

But instead of getting into a full-on public relations battle with his opponents, Deluce has been relying on fervant behind-the-scenes buttonholing. Not only has he been personally working City Hall, meeting with with councillors, but he has also met with Transport Minister David Collenette on three occasions.

Collenette has been sending out mixed messages on the future of the Island Airport. His spokesperson, Anthony Polci, says merely that the minister is open to debate. But Deluce says the minister’s message to him has “never varied” and that he has been “quite positive” about the proposal. “He thought it went a long way toward saving the Island Airport,” says Deluce.

Bolstering Deluce’s position is Liberal-connected lobbyist Paul Pellegrini, a former aide to Defence Minister Art Eggleton. His firm, Sussex Strategy Group, also employs City Hall insider Bernie Morton (a one-time aide to former city councillor John Adams) and former city councillor Bill Saundercook. “Bernie is more of a municipal guy, whereas Paul is more of a federal guy,” says Deluce.

City council has already voted in favour of a fixed link to the airport. But the 1998 vote was conditional on the city’s chief financial officer’s giving the green light to the Port Authority’s plan for the bridge. It’s not supposed to cost the city a cent. “We’ve asked them to give us the business plan, and they’ve been unable to,” says councillor Olivia Chow, who opposes expansion.

Port Authority chair Henry Pankratz tells NOW they are preparing the business plan for the fixed link, even though they have not yet received any details from Deluce.

Deluce maintains that the $550 million he has earmarked for his proposal “is 100-per-cent privately funded.” Of that total, $500 million will go to Bombardier in the form of aircraft leases. The remaining $50 million, from “private individuals and institutions,” would pay for the bridge and the new terminal. Deluce would not reveal the names of the private backers but said he would “in the next couple of weeks.”

Given that Bombardier is prepared to build 15 new aircraft to be leased to Deluce, that company would also appear to have a vested interest. Bombardier spokesperson Ken Swartz says, “Turbo-props make sense at the Island, and this is an aircraft that’s made locally (at Downsview). But as a far as an official position, that’s not something that Bombardier has on this.”

It’s no secret the feds love Bombardier — they’ve given the Canuck aerospace giant millions in subsidies over the years. Critics say Downsview’s Q400 turbo-props can’t compete in a market for regional aircraft that prefers jets, and that the plant’s days are numbered, leaving one to wonder whether the Liberals will back the plan to keep the place humming.

In order for Deluce’s plan to fly, he also has to convince city movers and shakers that an expanded airport is compatible with the city’s vision for a new clean-and-green waterfront. So Deluce met with Waterfront Revitalization Corporation chair Robert Fung.

“We did not get the impression that there was any conflict between what we were talking about and what his vision of the waterfront is,” says Deluce.

The waterfront corporation has no official position on the future of the Island Airport. The Fung Report only made a passing reference to it, calling for a “comprehensive study” to “devise a plan for the airport that meshes with the vision for the waterfront.”

But the publicly appointed corporation board members may have more of an interest than they’re letting on. When he met with Community AIR, Fung felt compelled to declare that he is a pilot (he flies his plane out of Pearson) and that he has had interests in the aviation business in the past. (The waterfront corporation’s Kristin Jenkins confirmed this story to NOW.)

As well, one of the waterfront corporation’s board members, Tony Dionisio, is the head of the city’s influential Universal Workers Union Local 183, which has written council supporting the Deluce proposal.Dionisio declined to be interviewed and referred NOW to Andy Manahan, the union’s development promotion rep, who penned the letter. “We believe REGCO’s innovative plan complements the overall vision for the waterfront that Robert Fung has referred to as Canada’s gateway,” Manahan wrote in his letter to council.

In 1999 the construction union proposed building a $21-million tunnel under the channel to the airport. Deluce says most councillors he’s spoken to have told him they don’t want another debate around the fixed link and the future of the airport. So far, council has avoided it. A May 1 joint meeting of council’s economic development and parks committee with the planning and transportation committee was cancelled by councillor Michael Feldman.

“Obviously (Feldman) and others got nervous,” says councillor Joe Pantalone, who has switched from supporting the fixed link to opposing the airport expansion altogether.

“We are concerned that in the backrooms they will try to cut a deal — to steer away from the environmental and health debate,” says Sparrow. “Because we understand that, we’re going to force the issue one way or another.”scottand@nowtoronto.com

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