Star Op-Ed: Airport Expansion Needs Real Scrutiny
TORONTO – When Toronto city council declined to approve jets at the Toronto island airport back in April of 2014, it committed instead to develop a “framework for managing growth” at the airport. This exercise was to include a rigorous “environmental assessment” (EA), an independent and unbiased study that was supposed to assess the potential environmental, social and economic effects (positive or negative) of the proposed expansion, including a 400-metre extension of the runway into the harbour and Lake Ontario.
Normally an EA for such a major undertaking would be mandated by the federal or provincial governments, but since the landowner, Ports Toronto, is itself a federal agency, there was no statutory requirement. So, to respond to the city’s request, Ports Toronto stepped in to do its own version of an “EA” of the proposal to introduce jet aircraft from its anchor tenant (Porter Airlines).
The problem is that Ports Toronto is hardly an objective third party. While it claims to stand at arms-length, the airport accounts for some 70 per cent of its revenues and expansion is key to justifying its existence. It has a vested interest in only one outcome — clearance for takeoff. For now, Ports Toronto is in the driver’s seat defining the scope of the EA as well as providing the ultimate conclusion. They are paying for it and don’t have to follow any rules.
A second fundamental problem with this EA is that Transport Canada, the federal agency responsible for airport operations and safety has yet to rule on technical aeronautical safety and zoning issues relating to jets and runway expansion and there is no indication when it will do so. These include the extent of marine exclusion zones (MEZ) into which the Toronto island ferries and recreational watercraft cannot venture; remedial measures such as jet blast barriers to protect from the thrust effects of takeoff and landings on nearby boaters; potential runway approach lights, which would extend beyond the MEZ further out on the lake and in the harbour; limits on building heights and development surrounding the harbour and the Port Lands along with other safety measures that could severely limit the use of the Western Gap, rendering it effectively closed.
Transport Action Ontario, a group of knowledgeable experts in safe, sustainable transportation practices has estimated that based on existing Transport Canada standards for comparable situations, these measures would be devastating for other uses of the waterfront. Transport Canada apparently does not make advance rulings on such issues and does so only upon the submission of a formal proposal. It would then work with Ports Toronto to implement these plans though an internal process, without involving the city or public, a sequence which clearly subverts the intention of the EA.
Allowing jets at this inner city airstrip and doubling the air traffic to equal that of Ottawa’s International Airport — between 4.3 and 4.8 million passengers a year — would bring a profound change to our waterfront. The current so-called “EA” will not fairly or accurately assess the impacts of that change. Without an informed understanding of Transport Canada’s true requirements we are left in the dark on the critical elements of an “environmental assessment.”
From south Etobicoke to the Scarborough Bluffs and beyond, what is emerging all along the Toronto waterfront is one of the most remarkable transformations of its kind anywhere providing new and improved places for the public to enjoy: parks and trails, a linked series of neighbourhoods, places to live and work, and places of recreation, repose and natural beauty. With literally billions of dollars in private sector investment in progress it is one of the largest such revitalization efforts in the world. It must not be compromised by an inadequate understanding of the impacts of airport expansion.
We call upon the province to step in and insist on a proper truly arms-length EA for the proposed airport expansion. Such an EA cannot and should not proceed unless and until Transport Canada comes forward with its specific requirements. The public needs to be armed with this essential information to have a genuine understanding of what is at stake and enable city council to responsibly make what is arguably one of the most important decisions on the city’s horizon.
Paul Bedford was chief planner of Toronto from 1996 to 2004. David Crombie is a former mayor of Toronto. Jack Diamond is a Toronto-based international architect. Anne Golden is Co-Director of the Ryerson City Building Institute. Ken Greenberg is Principal of Greenberg Consultants and former head of Architecture and Urban design in the Toronto Planning Department.
Source: Toronto Star op-ed, 2015-02-13