It’s not like I didn’t try to explain it clearly to the Globe & Mail’s City Hall journalist de jour (see prior post “‘Public Service’ — easier said than done part 4” January 30-09). About the concept of building a tunnel to the Toronto City Centre Airport (TCCA), I mean. But even in the most plain language, getting a point across is no simple feat. Which reminds me of that great Far Side cartoon – the one about What People Say and What Dogs Hear. (And no, I’m not suggesting that anyone is a K-9.)
Earlier this week, a few of us from the Toronto Port Authority (TPA) were given the opportunity to meet with the Editorial Board of the revitalized and energized Toronto Star. The topic was the TCCA, which they are editorially in favour of at One Yonge Street, and we advised the Star team that if various levels of government were looking to put a cost-effective “shovel in the ground”, then a ripe opportunity existed with the 74 year-old idea of building a tunnel between the City and Toronto Island Airport (now called the TCCA). Although the TPA wasn’t advocating the tunnel, the opportunity had been shared with the Minister of Transport, Infrastructure and Communities last month as part of a national laundry list of infrastructure opportunities that could utilize the 2009 Budget’s envelope for stimulus-related activity. If the various levels of government though it had merit.
On Wednesday, The Star did a straight up news story coming out of the Editorial Board, along with a handsome graphic of what it might look like. Quite the unanticipated scoop it turned out, as Global, CBC, CP24 and The Globe all jumped on the story the following day.
Although the TCCA is currently well-served by the TPA’s ferry system across the Western Gap, three facts are important to consider.
First, the City is in the throes of considering the construction of a new watermain to provide better quality water to residents of Toronto Island. Plans and mockups have been published by City Hall, and the environmental impact of replacing what some believe is a 75 year-old utility pipe is being considered. As is, I’m sure, the impact of doing nothing and hoping no one gets sick.
Second, municipalities are crying out for the much-touted infrastructure stimulus capital to flow. If one needs another good idea – the tunnel fit the bill given the new $45 million terminal currently being built by Porter at the TCCA.
Third, there’s the simple business case. During the winter, the City of Toronto runs a ferry service to Wards and Algonquin Islands to allow the Island residents a chance to keep up with their daily lives. This service is estimated to cost Toronto taxpayers between $2 million and $3 million for the season. So long as people live on the Island, which may well be for at least another 99 years, they’ll need a way to get back and forth to work, shop for food, go to school, attend the small weekly protest vigil about the TCCA’s existence, and so forth.
Over a 10 year period, the present value of this ferry service runs around $25 million. Not very different than the cost of building a tunnel to the TCCA. We know two things for certain: i) folks will be living on the Islands well beyond the next 10 years, and ii) tunnel infrastructure lasts a lot longer than 10 years.
And if a tunnel were ever to be put in place, Islanders would be able to have much better access to the City than they have under the current cirsumstances of December – March’s windswept ferry. For the City, the opportunity to redirect that $2-$3 million per season to other worthwhile causes would appeal to any City Councillor with an eye on the strains of the current municipal budget.
All of this was explained in great detail to a journo named Tenille Bonoguore from the Globe & Mail yesterday. The business case of the winter ferry cost savings, the fact that the TPA was not proposing the tunnel…merely apprising various politicians that we’d execute the construction of it if they wanted to put some infrastructure dollars into that kind of thing. Here is the verbatim Globe interview:
Globe: I’m writing a story about the Toronto Port Authority’s request for stimulus funding to build a pedestrian tunnel to the Toronto Island Airport. I’d like to know:
- Of the projects listed in the stimulus funding request, what three do you consider to be the highest priority?
- The tunnel was a late addition to a February request for stimulus funding. What reasons prompted it to be added on May 14?
- Does the TPA plan to carry out its own environmental impact assessment?
- What advantage could the city draw from such use of stimulus spending? (How many jobs would be created? How much would it impact commercial use of the airport?)
MRM: As a starting point, I’d like to correct the suggestion that the TPA has requested funding for any particular project under the federal government’s stimulus program. We are not seeking funding for any particular project. Post budget, our entity (among many others I suspect) was asked to provide a list of stimulus-type infrastructure projects that could be initiated in the near term. That formed the original list. Once the new terminal at the TCCA was formally announced on April 27th, it seemed appropriate to include the tunnel concept on the list of projects that the Minister could consider. As you may know, as Mayor, Barbara Hall advocated a tunnel of this nature over 5 years ago.
This idea is no more and no less than an idea. We do not have the capital to build it ourselves. If the Federal government would like to proceed with a project of this nature, we’ll be pleased to assist in its execution.
As the City of Toronto has already announced plans to build a much needed new Island watermain underneath the Western Gap, it makes sense for all levels of government to consider the cost-effectiveness of combining projects on this nature.
From a business standpoint, in light of the multi-million dollar cost of providing winter ferry service for Island residents, the payback period for a pedestrian tunnel is very attractive. Given their budget pressures, I would think that the City will welcome any infrastructure project that helps them save operating expenses. If this tunnel was built, the City would be able to spend that scarce capital on other worthy initiatives.
As a courtesy, we apprised the City and Province of the concept yesterday [Tuesday]. To my knowledge, each level of government has the opportunity to advocate for certain infrastructure projects, but that’s all well above my “pay grade”. If any of the three levels of government are interested in discussing it further, we will naturally flesh out the concept on their behalf. If they are looking for a tailor-made near term stimulus project, that also saves public funds, the tunnel fits the bill.
But did the key facts make it into their article earlier today? Nope. Instead, Globe readers get: “Toronto Port Authority’s proposal for a tunnel across the Western Gap” and the claim that we’ve “asked” for the money.
Not according to the interview that the story was based upon.
As for the business case? For some reason, Canada’s National Newspaper didn’t have space to mention the fact that the tunnel would save $25 million in winter ferry costs over a 10 year period. Paying for itself, even without the billions of infrastructure funds that are currently looking for a worthwhile home. But there was space for a pretty graphic; which is something I guess.
I’ve said it before, and I fear it’ll be said again. This public service stuff is easier said than done.
In the meantime, I had to be in both Montreal and Ottawa yesterday. And the Porter flights were almost at capacity on each leg. Proof that a good business plan and a talented team can do great things, even in a recession.
(disclosure – this blog, as always, reflects a personal opinion; and in no way represents the views of our firm, the TPA, its Board/Staff or the federal government)