Future of Island Airport Snags in Toronto Politics

BUSINESS travelers and tourists love the Toronto Island Airport, but some local residents and the politicians who serve them feel differently.

The Island Airport is the most politically manipulated airport in Canada. While most airports have, until now, been run by the federal government, the Island Airport is also controlled by municipal and provincial politicians. Everyone has a veto and a different agenda.

One of three airports in the Toronto region, the Island Airport is the only one that beats the traffic getting to the city's downtown.

``Landing at the Island Airport is the fastest way to get from downtown to downtown,'' says Grant Bush, a Montreal advertising executive who travels frequently on the commuter service to Toronto Island Airport. ``You're right downtown - well, almost right downtown.''

The travel time to downtown from Toronto Pearson International Airport - the busiest airport in Canada and the hub for the country - takes from 40 minutes to an hour or more. From the smaller Buttonville Airport, just north of the city, the trip can also take up to an hour.

A traveler can make it from Toronto Island Airport to downtown in 10 minutes. Pedestrians can walk the route in 20 minutes, and a free bus runs to the city center.

The bus trip would be quicker, however, were it not for political opposition to expanding the airport and, in particular, to building a short bridge or a tunnel connecting the island to the mainland.

Currently, an old ferry makes the 500-yard crossing every 15 minutes, bringing cars, buses, and passengers to the terminal.

Cost-cutting measures by the federal government in Ottawa and the provincial government in Toronto could determine whether this convenient downtown airport grows, stagnates, or even closes.

A policy statement issued July 13 by the federal government says: ``Beginning April 1, 1995, and during the five subsequent years, the government will gradually decrease airport funding. Federal funding and/or operation will cease March 31, 2000.''

That would appear to be the end for the Toronto Island Airport, since it lost $756,600 (Canadian; US$549,670) in 1992. Ottawa wants to privatize or close airports across the country in an effort to cut Canada's massive budget deficit.

On top of the federal cutbacks, the government of the province of Ontario announced earlier this year that it would gradually reduce the annual $1.1 million subsidy on the ferry connecting the Island Airport to the mainland.

``Over the next five years, the federal subsidies will be phased out for the Island Airport and so will the ferry subsidies from the provincial government,'' says Jim McKee in Toronto, a spokesman for Transport Canada, the federal department of transport. ``The future of the airport is up to the Harbour Commission who runs it.''

Politics are the main obstacle to the expansion or survival of the downtown airport in Canada's business and financial capital. The Harbour Commission is a politically appointed body; in addition, any changes to how the airport operates have to be approved by the city government, the provincial government, and Ottawa. And Toronto's populist, left-wing city council has vetoed building a bridge to the island or allowing small jets to land.

The airlines say jets would make commercial sense for the airport, but councilors object to the noise they make.

OME politicians see the new federal airport policy as an opportunity to expand service to the Island Airport.

For instance Allan Tonks, chairman of Metropolitan Toronto Council, says he supports a proposal by the Toronto Board of Trade to build a bridge and to allow quieter jets to land at the airport.

In addition, expanding service at the Island Airport would take pressure off the main Toronto airport, Transport Canada officials say, by shifting much of the commuter traffic to the downtown airport.

But opposition to expanding the Island Airport is dogma among the left-wing councilors who dominate Toronto's council. It would appear that as long as they have a veto, the Island Airport is going nowhere.

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