Friday, June 13, 2008

fly bye

Aerotropolis an idea that won't fly

, The Hamilton Spectator, (Jun 13, 2008)

The city's 25-year-old airport business park is still 85 per cent empty -- and Terry Cooke, in a column on this page last Saturday, says we must pay to greatly expand it into an aerotropolis.

He claims the "city's future prosperity depends on servicing our airport lands." But like every other fan of this aerotropolis, he doesn't tell us how much it will cost.

What we know suggests a price tag of several hundred million dollars. The consultant studies released last month say a new expressway is required across the rural area between the airport and the south end of the Red Hill Valley Parkway, and warn that the aerotropolis may require widening the 403 escarpment crossing.

They call for a new 25-kilometre trunk sewer pipe from the airport to the Woodward Avenue water waste water plant.

Something similar will be needed for water services -- the consultants aren't sure how much. But they note the airport is the highest point of land in the city so pumping stations are required. And since some of the aerotropolis lands slope away from the lake, pumps will be necessary for the sewage too.

Cooke says Hamilton can pay for all this as well as fixing the downtown and the bayfront industrial area. He doesn't explain how.

He fails to mention that airline fuel prices have nearly doubled in the last year. Since December alone, nine U.S. airline companies have gone bankrupt. Others are desperately raising fares and imposing fees on the first piece of baggage.

What happens to our aerotropolis investment when oil hits $150 a barrel (expected this summer), or $200 a barrel (expected by 2010), or goes much higher? That's the worst possible news for airports, especially small regional ones such as Hamilton's. Why would anyone suggest we bet Hamilton's economic future on this?

Cooke also doesn't mention the aerotropolis will consume 3,000 acres of prime agricultural land -- foodland that becomes more precious as fuel hikes raise shipping costs.

Instead he exaggerates the success of the airport. He predicts more cargo, but doesn't mention the airport has been stuck at the same level for the past seven years.

He points to 700,000 passengers last year (actually 662,000), but doesn't explain that everyone is counted twice -- once going out and once again coming back -- or that this is 30 per cent fewer than in 2004.

He claims there are 3,500 "well-paying" jobs at the airport. The airport operators themselves say a little over 1,600. Maybe he's counting them on the way to work and again on the way home.

He says the airport operators paid the city a $165,000 "royalty" last year, but neglects to mention that the city is required to spend half this rent on promoting it. The taxpayers own the 1,460-acre airport, and in the 12 years of private management, have received an average of less than $15 per acre per year in rent.

He argues the aerotropolis will attract jobs but doesn't mention that over two-thirds of the land is expected to be occupied by warehousing-transportation and wholesale trade -- jobs that would make more sense on the bayfront, near the QEW, and that marine shipping appears to have a brighter future than air freight.

The facts suggest that paying for the aerotropolis means we can forget about restoring the vitality of the lower city, and that we'll be leaving it to our grandkids to clean up old industrial lands. Before council commits us to this, we need all the information fairly presented, so there can be a full public discussion.

Don McLean is a cofounder of Environment Hamilton. He volunteers with Citizens At City Hall and teaches environmental studies for Athabasca University.

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