Mark Laroche fears the Ottawa International Airport can’t afford to build a rail station for the expanded Trillium Line.
“We don’t want the tracks ending up with no station,” Laroche, the president and CEO of the airport authority, said in an interview Friday. “It would be the joke of the town. But we’re really caught in a pickle not having anticipated such a catastrophic scenario that we go almost to zero revenues.”
Laroche said the airport needs immediate financial help from the federal government if there’s any hope of opening a Trillium Line airport station at the same time as the rest of the rail expansion in 2022.
The airport needs $13.5 million from the federal government. Laroche said he contacted the government in June through a supportive Ottawa South Liberal MP David McGuinty.
So far, no news.
McGuinty couldn’t be reached for comment Friday afternoon.
The rail project made sense when the airport’s passenger volume was on an upward trajectory, but COVID-19 has severely reduced the number of air travellers, dialling back airline service and delivering a financial blow to the airport, which is borrowing millions to stay operating.
The airport has put a pause on all capital projects unless they’re related to safety and security. On top of that, the airport laid off 20 per cent of its staff.
Even a $40-million hotel planned by Group Germain at the airport has been deferred, Laroche said.
The airport’s 2020 budget is poised to be more than $50 million in the red and the 2021 budget is forecast to have a $40-million shortfall, Laroche said. It might take five years to get the airport back on solid financial footing, he said.
There are only about a dozen flights a day when the airport typically has 110, Laroche said.
The airport has spent a couple of million dollars on engineering drawings and specifications in preparation for tendering the station contract in early 2021 before beginning construction in the spring.
Construction has already started to bring the rail guideway to the terminal. They’re at risk of becoming tracks to nowhere.
Laroche said the airport authority’s main goal is to fund air services with the fees it collects. Economic development is a secondary goal, so it’s hard for the airport to justify directing millions of dollars to the construction of a rail station, he said.
“We’re using our credit card to pay for our mortgage right now,” Laroche said. “We can’t afford to put an addition to our house, which is the LRT station, and we really have to concentrate on staying open to provide flights and air services. We can’t really fund a station at this time in the current situation.”
The airport is prepared to put off the rail project to protect its fiscal health, but Laroche knows it would be hugely detrimental to a city that has showed an overwhelming interest in connecting the airport with downtown using the O-Train network.
The Trillium Line connection to the airport is part of the Stage 2 O-Train expansion across the city.
The $800-million Trillium Line expansion, which is being constructed by SNC-Lavalin, is scheduled to be complete in the second half of 2022. While the main line will mostly use new Stadler FLIRT trains, the $155-million airport link funded by the federal and provincial governments will use the Alstom Coradia LINT trains currently in the city’s Trillium Line fleet.
The four-kilometre airport spur, which will include Uplands Station at the EY Centre, is part of the Trillium Line extension to Riverside South. There will be a transfer at South Keys for trains travelling to and from the airport, although the line is being built to allow seamless rides between the airport and Bayview Station in case the city allows it in the future.
The Ottawa airport committed $25 million at the beginning of the project and now expects the station will cost between $15 million and $17 million.
City council’s finance and economic development committee was scheduled to receive a Stage 2 construction update during a meeting Tuesday but the presentation has since been removed from the agenda.
Ottawa airport officials are closely watching what the federal government does about a similar, albeit, much bigger and more expensive, transit station being built at Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport in Montreal. A report Friday in La Presse citing an unnamed source said the federal government will send financial help to the station project at the Montreal airport as part of an economic update on Monday.
“I want the same treatment that Montreal will probably be getting and it makes sense,” Laroche said.