The Case for Mirabel

James Cherry , the president of Aeroports de Montréal wants to demolish the main terminal of Mirabel International Airport, effectively putting the final nail in the coffin of our much beleaguered former Eastern Gateway. He justifies his position thusly: Mirabel is no longer a passenger airport, the terminal costs about $5 million per year to maintain and has been abandoned for a decade.

The Mayor of Montreal, Denis Coderre, wants the building to stay open, albeit with a new vocation. A lot has been proposed – aviation museum, convention centre, warehouse. So far no one is proposing the obvious: that we use the terminal for passenger purposes.

Mirabel, as they say, is a political ‘hot-potato’.

Aside from the Olympic Stadium, Mirabel may be one of the best examples of a mega project realized during an era in which Montreal possessed adequate political will to turn its big dreams into reality. Planning for the airport began in the mid-late 1960s when it was expected that Dorval Airport (today’s Trudeau International) would become completely saturated by 1985. Moreover, at the time, federal laws mandated that all European airlines stop in Montreal, effectively ensuring our city would serve as Canada’s ‘Eastern Gateway.’ Thus, a massive new airport was proposed for a site off-island, to serve both Montreal and Ottawa.

Though the new airport’s location was hotly contested between federal and provincial authorities, Mirabel was ultimately chosen as the location. A section of land larger than the entire geographic area of the City of Montreal was expropriated for the project and plans were developed to link the new airport with the cities it was to serve with new highways and even a high-speed rail system.

One-sixth of the new airport was completed in 1975, though the highway extensions and high-speed train never came to fruition. Mirabel’s failure has been attributed to former Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau. However, former Quebec Premiers Robert Bourassa and René Lévesque would have been ultimately responsible for the unrealized highway and railway connections to the airport.

Mirabel served the region for twenty-nine years before passenger flights were permanently re-directed to the inappropriately rechristened Trudeau International Airport. The justification was that Mirabel was ‘too far away’ from the city centre and thus, inconvenient for local and international travelers. It was economically unwise for our city to have two international airports while Trudeau still had the capacity to handle all passenger traffic in a given year. Between 2000 and 2005 Trudeau airport was expanded and modernized, while Mirabel was given priority for cargo flights and aircraft testing.

mirabel-trudeau

Trudeau has been promised direct links to the city centre ever since, but much like Mirabel, nothing has come of it. During the renovation of Trudeau a decade ago, a train station was built into the basement of the international terminal. Today it’s used for staff parking. Direct public transit access to Trudeau is provided by a special express bus, much like the bus that once connected Montreal with Mirabel (and was deemed insufficient). There’s been talk of connecting Trudeau to our public transit system. However,  the neo-liberal economic policies put in place by various levels of government over the last thirty years have complicated what would have once been a more straightforward process. Today, the interests of the airport authority, the cities of the Dorval and Montreal, the Agence Métropolitain de Transport, the STM, Transport Quebec, the federal transport ministry and the now privatized Canadian National Railway all have to be considered and, somehow united into a cohesive arrangement.

It hasn’t yet happened and likely never will. Redesigning the Dorval Interchange has proven problematic enough — the projected is repeatedly derailed by disagreements between Quebec and the Canadian Pacific over the placement of a single overpass support column. Because the interchange project has encountered so many setbacks and delays, more costly and complex plans to improve airport access were shelved.

Trudeau’s expansion has put considerable strain on the traffic infrastructure located around it. Gridlock is now an everyday occurrence and only seems to be getting worse. At this point, infrastructure repair and improvement is nearly impossible due to the resulting short-term increase in congestion.

While you could make the case that in the mid-1970s Mirabel might have been ‘too far’ from the city, this is no longer the case. Suburbanization over the last thirty years has moved a greater segment of the metropolitan population closer to Mirabel than Trudeau. It has also instigated the development of a commuter rail line that passes close to Mirabel and connects to Montreal’s Central Business District. Highways – notably Autoroute 50 connecting the National Capital Region with Mirabel – have also been completed.

Ultimately, this is why James Cherry needs to rethink his planned demolition. Plainly speaking, the situation has changed. I agree in principle that Montreal doesn’t need three airports. If any are closed permanently, it should be the airports hemmed in on all sides by residential zones. The citizens of Dorval and St. Hubert have been complaining about noise (and concerned about a crash) for years. This is why Trudeau airport has a curfew (that may have to be lifted, according to a recent statement by Denis Coderre) and why Mirabel shouldn’t be written off completely. It has the capacity and the advantageous location the other two airports lack.

The shadows of giants from the past still loom large in our collective consciousness. Today we fear the dreamers of yore as well as their dreams. We’re more cautious. We’re more quick to smear those who dared to dream as irresponsible. More neo-liberalism I suppose. For over a generation, politicians have been lowering the public’s expectations of what Montreal can accomplish. It should come as no surprise the man responsible for our airports wasn’t elected, but appointed, and is free to spend tax revenue and use (or misuse) publicly-built infrastructure as he sees fit. It’s unfortunate that the public won’t be consulted; we paid for it, we should decide how it’s used.