A case of tunnel vision in Calgary

Airports rank right up there with potholes and property taxes

When it comes to municipal headaches, airports rank right up there with potholes and property taxes. The complaints usually stem from expansion efforts, and the aircraft noise and car traffic that inevitably comes along with it. In Toronto, for example, waterfront condo owners are vowing to shut down five-year-old Porter Airlines, which has turned the once-sleepy island airport into a bustling regional hub.

In Calgary, the problem is road access. The local airport authority is building a new runway at Calgary International Airport that will require the closure of a key artery leading to the terminal from the city’s northeast. The solution that’s been on the books for years is to build a traffic underpass below the proposed runway, but it was only last month that city council, after much coaxing from new Mayor Naheed Nenshi, finally approved the controversial $295-million project. In general, opposition to the proposal has focused on cost and the fact the tunnel will serve a relatively small, albeit growing, part of the city.

Now the airlines are complaining. The tunnel is scheduled to open at the same time as the new runway in 2014, but WestJet CEO Gregg Saretsky has said he’s concerned the underpass may raise unforeseen safety and security issues, bogging down the airport’s badly needed expansion, which WestJet is depending on to accommodate its own growth. While other airports have roadways that pass underneath runways and taxiways, most were built prior to 9/11. Saretsky has also cited potential safety risks, including the threat that planes landing in icy conditions will be in close proximity to traffic. It sounds alarmist, but airline spokesperson Robert Palmer said WestJet can’t afford any delays. The airport is operating at capacity and WestJet continues to grow, he said. “The runway is critical to both organizations.”

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