Hear that? It’s the sound of Sam McBride rolling, possibly raging, in his grave.
Toronto’s red-blooded Depression-era mayor was known for two things: Brawling in council chambers (literally) and fighting the island airport tunnel (politically).
“If there’s anything I’m proud of in my 30 years of public service,” McBride said in 1936, the year of both his re-election and death, “it is stopping the tunnel.”
This week, that legacy was dealt a death blow.
After winning approval from city council Thursday night, the Toronto Port Authority is one step closer to building a $60 million underwater pedestrian tunnel to the Billy Bishop airport. The deal allows the city to upgrade its water and sewage mains during construction at a savings of $20 million. The port authority expects final federal approval to come in a matter of months.
As in McBride’s day, the tunnel proposal strikes a discordant note.
While Geoffrey Wilson, president and CEO of the Toronto Port Authority, calls it “a win-win for everybody,” the area’s councillor, Adam Vaughan, says the tunnel “is a bizarre piece of infrastructure that I don’t get.”
The debate is a holdover from 1935, when the federal government offered to cover the $1 million needed for a tunnel. Back then, they thought building a tunnel would expedite the construction of an airport.
Despite fierce resistance from McBride — then a left-leaning councillor known as much for his “Mr. Islands” persona as for pinning political opponents against walls — construction began at the foot of Bathurst St. in the fall of 1935.
Labourers ripped out the pavement and moved sewers and utilities, prepping for the big dig under the western gap. But when a new federal government pulled funding less than two months later, construction was halted. The hole was filled in. The project was dead.
Are today’s tunnel opponents hoping for a similar outcome?
“I hate to sound so blasé but I really don’t care,” said Vaughan, whose true concerns lie with increased taxi traffic in the area. “I just want (the port authority) to live up to the promise to manage the taxis and make it safer for people.”
Wilson isn’t fazed either.
“I can’t concern myself with history. I’m concerning myself with today and tomorrow,” he said. “(The airport)’s going gangbusters. I think it’s going to be the best urban city centre airport in the world.”
Three firms are bidding to design and build the tunnel, a process expected to wrap in September. Construction is expected to begin early next year. Though the ferry will continue to run, passengers could be walking to the terminal by 2014.
McBride is buried in Mount Pleasant Cemetery, should anyone want to pay their respects.