Resident Laura Cooper addresses speaks at a public consultation about the Island airport. Photo by Ben Spurr.
Porter Airlines' plan to expand the Island airport may have stalled late last year, but neither side in the fight over bringing jets to Toronto's waterfront is ready to call a truce.
Both supporters and opponents of the proposal packed into the council chamber at City Hall on Monday night for the latest round of public consultations. The room was so full that people were forced to sit on the stairs and at councillors' desks.
Although the city's moderator pleaded with the audience to ensure it would be an "event that will make this chamber proud," the crowd frequently erupted into cheers or jeers whenever controversial points were raised.
Toronto Port Authority (TPA) president and CEO Geoff Wilson bore the brunt of repeated heckling when he tried to assure critics of the expansion plan that his organization had residents' best interests at heart.
"The airport really needs to be better understood," Wilson said. "We don't aspire to a be a mini-Pearson on the lake."
His opponents were unconvinced. He was openly laughed at when he said the TPA was committed to ensuring the area near the airport would remain liveable if the expansion were approved.
It was the first time the public had the opportunity to confront the Port Authority, which was absent from previous consultations.
The federal government agency operates Billy Bishop and is tacitly supportive of Porter's plan. It has made several overtures to the city in an apparent attempt to pave the way for the expansion's approval, including settling a long-running tax dispute earlier this month.
On Monday Wilson made another offer, telling the crowd that the authority might be willing to place an "interim cap" on passenger levels at Billy Bishop in order to give the city time to build infrastructure needed to cope with expansion.
Last week, the TPA announced that it is seeking $100 million for Toronto from the feds' Building Canada Fund in order to pay for infrastructure improvements. The unexpected request was made without the city's knowledge and was intended to mitigate community concerns about congestion, which has been particularly bad in the Bathurst Quay area.
The move was not welcomed by city staff.
Deputy City Manager John Livey told the meeting that the surprise request "caused great anxiety on our part" because Toronto is only eligible for a limited amount from the fund.
"We have issues that we want to deal with [that are] more pressing" than the Island airport, he said.
The controversial airport proposal was first tabled at City Hall by Mayor Rob Ford in April 2013, at Porter's request. The boutique airline is looking to extend Billy Bishop's runway by up to 400 metres and lift the ban on jet aircraft.
The airline, which currently operates a turboprop fleet, has conditionally purchased 12 of Bombardier's CS100 jet planes, which would allow the company to serve new destinations on the West Coast and the Caribbean. The new aircraft has yet to enter commercial operation however, and Bombardier recently announced its production would be delayed again until the second half of 2015.
Porter's plan would entail an amendment to the tripartite agreement that governs the operation of the airport, which would require the consent of all three signatories: Transport Canada, the TPA, and the city.
A city report released in November determined that approval of the proposal would be "premature" because too little was known about its long-term effects. Staff recommended council commission further study and delay making a final decision on the issue until March 2015.
Rather than send that recommendation to council, however, the Executive Committee voted in December to defer the report until its meeting in February. But now staff need more time to examine the new information released by the TPA, and Livey is asking for another deferral of the report, until March.
Last year staff determined that there are "existing operational conflicts between the airport and its neighbourhood" that need to be resolved before expansion, which could increase annual passenger levels from 2.3 million to 4.8 million, is even contemplated.
At Monday's public meeting, staff again highlighted outstanding issues, including insufficient data on whether the CS100 jet would conform to the airport's noise restrictions, concern over the TPA's request to extend the tripartite agreement past its current 2033 expiry date, and the fact that Transport Canada has yet to weigh in on the impact of the runway extension.
Area residents remain concerned about the effect increased activity at the airport would have on the environment, waterfront revitalization, and nearby residents' health and quality of life.
Laura Cooper, one of 85 people who signed up to speak at the public meeting, urged council to reject the proposal and maintain the waterfront as "a place for the peoples of Toronto, not for jets."
"Is it a good idea to create more gridlock along the Gardiner and Lakeshore?" she asked. "Is it a good idea to drive fuel tanks right through a residential area? Would you want this on your street?"
Supporters of the plan were also well represented, however. Michael Patrick, who has lived in the Fort York area for 13 years, drew both heckling and applause when he said the airport was part of wider renaissance of the waterfront.
"I've seen the drastic change from an industrial area to a growing, vibrant place," he said. "This city suffers from a lack of vision."