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Oshawa Airport runway extension, a lost cause

By Gord Mahaffy

 

 Oshawa Mayor John Henry (centre) after he climbed out of a Harvard at the
2011 Run the Runway event. Mayor John Henry was a consistent supporter of
the proposed runway extensions. Photo courtesy John Alford

 

If Winston Churchill were here today he would probably say, “Never have so many in aviation lost so much to so few.”

On Monday June 25, 2012 at 1:45 a.m. in the morning, Oshawa city council voted 7 to 3 to kill the proposed runway extension project. If it had gone through, runway 12-30 at the Oshawa airport would have been extended from 4,000 feet to 5,000 feet.

The rational for extending the runway was based on a careful, up to date and reproducible study known as the Genivar report. Factors favouring a runway extension include the following benefits.

Over 80% of all corporate jet traffic using the already overcrowded Toronto Pearson airport could come into Oshawa, benefiting both airports. The critical difference that the extra 1,000 feet makes is that it allows commercial jet traffic to do the required balanced field take off at close to gross weight.
 
In the past corporate jets did not have the performance to meet the balanced field criteria in 5,000 feet, but with modern engines and newer planes this is possible.

With the closing of Buttonville airport it was expected that their corporate traffic would find it convenient to switch to Oshawa. Also Buttonville’s flight training operations and maintenance businesses were being enticed to come to Oshawa with the promise of an extended runway and an aviation friendly community.

Ornge Air ambulance service had already purchased a hanger to build a satellite base of operation in Oshawa before the company found itself in so much trouble.
Seneca College had originally planned to move its operation to Oshawa when Buttonville closed, but moved to Peterborough when it became obvious that there was an anti-aviation group in Oshawa.

General Motors would have been a big beneficiary since 80% of its just-in-time shipments have to be flown into Hamilton and trucked through the congested roads of the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). A trip of about 75 km. With a 5,000 foot runway in Oshawa almost 100% of the GM just-in-time shipments could be made within a few blocks of the assembly line.

But all of this was not to be as a result of a very determined group of citizens called CORE (Citizens Against Runway Expansion).  I suspect the people composing this group are career activists considering how fast they were able to organize, select a catchy name for themselves, put up a professional looking website, make contacts with councillors and mobilize volunteers to canvass the neighbourhoods.
 
However, it was not just this relatively small citizens group that was responsible for the negative outcome. There were several factors that created an Oshawa city council that ultimately proved itself to be hostile to aviation.
 
First when this council was elected in 2010 the runway expansion issue was not on the table, so it never became an election issue. Second, only 29% of the eligible voters cast ballots in that election. It stands to reason that only the most politically active people were the ones that voted and often these voters have extreme agendas.

People get what they vote for, and in this case they got councillors who are extreme in their handling of the issues. Example, Councillor Tito-Dante Marimpieti seems to oppose virtually any form of growth in Oshawa while Councillor Amy England will only support extreme-green projects and fails to understand how many projects can be environmentally responsible and still allow for growth.

But perhaps the biggest reason city council did not support the growth of the Oshawa airport can be found in a very subtle change in the way city council is elected.


Up until the last election, the city was divided into wards. Councillors were elected from each ward to represent the interests of the people in those wards. The councillor with the airport in his/her ward could be influenced by the CORE group and may oppose runway expansion.

But a Councillor from South Oshawa whose ward was a long way from the airport would probably be more concerned with creating jobs and therefore support a runway expansion.

However, this system was changed for the last election so that there are no wards. Each citizen voted for a list of councillors to represent all of Oshawa. Thus even if a councillor came from a part of the city far removed from the airport the voters next door to the airport are still voting for this candidate.
 
Remember only 29% of the eligible voters cast ballots. Candidates realize that with such a small turnout, activist groups like CORE can have a disproportionate influence on an election outcome since voter turnout in other parts of the city is minimal.

But getting back to the runway extension, the process that was put in place was to be in three parts. First a professional study was done to determine if it could be accomplished practically and economically. This resulted in the Genivar report which overwhelmingly recommended the runway extension.

Then there was a series of “open house meetings” to acquaint the public with the proposal and get public feedback. This was done. And while the public feedback did not support runway expansion, it must be pointed out that less than 1,000 members of the public attended these open house sessions (The total population of Oshawa {152,000} and the population of Whitby {122,000} is 274,000). So 0.6% or less than 1% of the total population was heard on this matter.

The third part of the process was supposed to be a Peer Group Review and Gap impact study in order to make sure the wider, 99% of the community was fully represented in the process .


And this is where the councillors lost their nerve and decided not to go forward with the Peer Group Review. They justified this move by saying it would cost the taxpayers $70,000 to complete the process, and they had enough information already.

But several councillors also expressed concerns that if the airport issue was not settled immediately it would become an issue in the 2014 elections.

In a desperate attempt to keep the process going forward one Oshawa businessman and pilot offered to donate the $70,000 to complete the Peer Group Review (This was immediately opposed by Councillor Nancy Diamond who expressed concern over the optics of accepting private money while at the same time opposing the use of public funds).

Other initiatives included both the CEO and the president of the Oshawa Chamber of Commerce urging the council to proceed with the runway expansion. The president of Toronto Airways and the president of the Canadian Flight Academy who had attended several council sessions also urged support for the runway expansion. There were many more business people who spoke on behalf of the airport including Jason Easton, manager of Government Relations for General Motors.

But in the end the council voted 7 to 3 to kill the runway extension at the Oshawa airport.

However, we in the aviation community should not forget the three Council members that stood up for the Oshawa airport in the face of strong opposition. These were Councillor Nester Pidwerbecki, Councillor Bruce Wood ( a private pilot and a COPA member), and His Worship, the Mayor of Oshawa, John Henry.

This is an aviation horror story, and here are a few rules that might prevent this kind of thing from happening in the future.

1) Make sure airport issues are election issues.
2) Make sure representatives of the aviation community are in touch with local politicians.
3) Generate as much positive publicity for airports as possible (i.e. COPA for Kids).
4) Get out and vote and urge all airport supporters to vote.
5) Don’t let politicians arbitrarily abandon the Ward system.

Remember, COPA President and CEO Kevin Psutka is correct. We need a freedom to fly fund, and we need a National General Aviation Plan.

Minister of Transport Lebel, where are you?