Inside Toronto's waterfront fight over a tiny airport tunnel

Why a tiny finger of water between Toronto and its Billy Bishop island airport has led to a knock-down, drawn-out fight

(Ports Toronto)

(Ports Toronto)

For years, Torontonians who sought the “convenience” of flying from Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport, plopped on an island 121 m off the downtown waterfront, often endured 15-minute lineups for a ferry that took all of 90 seconds to complete a crossing. But that’s finally about to change, after this week’s opening of a new, $82.5-million pedestrian tunnel that stretches beneath the fingerling of Lake Ontario that’s long separated the airport from the metropolis it serves. Robert Deluce, CEO of Porter Airlines, the airport’s main operator, goes so far as to call it “a real game-changer.”

The excitement over a 168-m underground tube, which takes just six minutes to walk through, demonstrates how long-standing and acrimonious the debate over a “fixed link” has been. Critics weren’t necessarily opposed to the connection itself, but rather what it represents: further expansion of the airport—and the associated commercial traffic—at a time when Toronto is reimagining its industrial waterfront as a livable urban oasis, complete with soaring condo towers and lively street art. “This is all wrapped up in the larger story of what the city wants the waterfront to be,” says Gabriel Eidelman, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto. He argues that a patchwork of ownership makes for unusually dysfunctional political battles on the city’s lakeshore, which is saying something in a town that elected Rob Ford mayor.

The modern fight over a fixed link for the airport began in earnest back in the early 2000s. That’s when Deluce first proposed a regional carrier catering to time-pressed business and government travellers—a move welcomed by the cash-strapped port authority. The plan involved buying a fleet of Bombardier Q400 turboprops (jets are currently prohibited at the island by a three-way agreement between Ottawa, the port authority and the city), and was contingent on the construction of a city-approved $20-million drawbridge to the mainland. But the bridge was later cancelled by former mayor David Miller after he campaigned against it in the 2003 election, arguing that it didn’t fit with the new vision of Toronto’s waterfront. “It probably set us back a good two or three years,” Deluce recalls. It wasn’t a total loss for Deluce, who had threatened to sue. He ended up receiving $20 million as part of a murky settlement with Ottawa.

With its new airline partner secured, the port authority spent millions on a new ferry service to replace the open-air barge that previously traversed the western channel. (That didn’t go smoothly, either: The ferry veered off-course and crashed into a dock wall on its maiden voyage; the captain had apparently been disoriented by smoke plumes set off alongside a celebratory fireworks display.) The close relationship enraged Air Canada, which had operated a meagre schedule out of the island until Deluce bought the airport’s only passenger terminal and had Air Canada evicted in 2006. The country’s largest airline responded with a flurry of unsuccessful lawsuits. Did the federal agency play favourites? Sort of. “They [Porter] are a majority-interest carrier at our airport and the foundational partner that allowed our airport to become successful,” says PortsToronto CEO Geoffrey Wilson, noting that Air Canada has since resumed flying from the island, albeit on a limited basis. “Some of our interests are aligned, but not all of them.”

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As traffic climbed over the years—around 2.4 million per year at last count, compared to about 68,000 before Porter launched—Wilson says it quickly became apparent that the island would need more than a ferry to accommodate future growth. By 2009, the focus had shifted to a less conspicuous pedestrian tunnel that was ultimately approved by city council and conceived as a public-private partnership, to be paid for through airport improvement fees. Even so, reminders of the rocky political history cropped up during construction. Excavators hit corrugated sheet metal that had been pounded into the ground and secured with wooden pilings. They were remnants of an earlier, controversial tunnel project—one that would have carried Depression-era cars with white-walled tires—that was mothballed in 1935 after a change of government in Ottawa.

Even in today’s post-tunnel Toronto, the island airport battles are far from over. Two years ago, Deluce revealed plans to fly small regional jets out of the airport, provided he could get the airport’s ban on jets lifted and the runways lengthened. That’s already proving to be just as divisive as his initial Porter plans. Miller, for one, has likened the project to “a throwback to a time when Toronto turned its back on the waterfront and allowed it to be a home of highly polluting toxic industries.” Deluce, on the other hand, argues that Torontonians are more than comfortable living with a busy airport on their doorstep. “There are 60 or 70 highrise condo buildings that have popped up in the downtown core since we started our service,” he says, adding that some even advertise proximity to the airport in their sales brochures.

The physical gap between Toronto and its island airport may have finally been bridged—or tunnelled, to be precise—but the political chasm remains as wide as ever.

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