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Toronto Island ferry fiasco reveals need to expand use of airport tunnel

Sunday, August 6, 2023

Island Airport pedestrian tunnel
Toronto Island Airport pedestrian tunnel

“If airport passengers on the islands can walk across the water, the rest of us wanting to access our own public space ought to be able to as well.”

So says Star columnist Edward Keenan. We at Parks Not Planes couldn’t agree more. It’s not fair that a private business (Ports Toronto) should have exclusive use of the Island Airport’s 215 acres of publicly-owned waterfront, land not when there is such an urgent need for more parkland. It’s why our organization, founded in 2021, calls for a public process to determine whether or not the City’s Island Airport lease, which ends in 2033, should be renewed.

But we don’t agree with Keenan that a bridge is the way to “solve the problem once and for all.”

It wasn’t back in 2003, and it isn’t now.

Some history is needed here.

The fight against the Island Airport bridge during David Miller’s mayoralty campaign wasn’t just about stopping expansion of the Island airport. The broader case against a bridge, then and now, is that it’s nearly impossible to achieve. Toronto harbour is a major waterway, with hundreds of boats – from sailboats and powerboats to party boats and huge cargo ships - entering and leaving the harbour on a daily basis. A bridge would have to be high enough to allow them to pass under – the Burlington Skyway is an example. As for a lift bridge, including one across the relatively narrow Eastern Gap, it would have to be open most of the time to avoid creating dangerous congestion on the water. How can such a complex, costly measure even be contemplated at a time when the city already can’t afford new ferries?

But Keenan’s right about the problem of getting to the Island Park. The current situation is untenable.

Ferry ridership has grown by more than 25% since before the Covid-19 pandemic.

In the past few seasons, real emergencies have arisen, including fights between frustrated passengers.

Crowding on the ferries is a major factor. The Sam McBride, the vessel involved in the crash a year ago, in which a dozen people were injured, was carrying over 900 passengers at the time.

Families with babies and small children are forced to wait for hours in the hot sun just to buy ferry tickets. And just this week, we learn new ferries won’t arrive until at least 2026.

Tourists to Toronto are urged to visit the Island, the “Jewel” in our park system, but nobody tells them that it’ll be an ordeal just be to get there.

This situation cannot continue.

We propose a short-term solution, use the already-existing Island Airport pedestrian tunnel: that the City request PortsToronto to provide public access to its tunnel to the Island to help relieve the crush on the ferries, and provide bus service across the runway to the Island Park.

There are practical constraints to this idea, but they’re not insurmountable. Current activity at Billy Bishop Airport is down significantly compared to last year: This past Saturday, July 29, there were only 150 flights, down from 177 last year. The bus would of course receive clearance when it was safe to cross.

This is something Ports Toronto does as a matter of course for Island residents, at times when the ferries cannot run because of ice or wind conditions.

It's an option that would be especially appealing to visitors heading to Hanlan’s Point. They’d get off the bus at the same point of arrival - the Hanlan’s ferry dock, with access to the beaches and the rest of the island via biking, or on foot.

It’s certainly not the once-and-for-all solution that Keenan talks about. But it’s worth considering as a partial solution to a problem that has festered for too many years.

Brian Iler is a Toronto lawyer, and spokesperson for Parks not Planes.

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