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Mon, Oct 04, 2004 - Page 12 News List

Montreal's Mirabel a `monument to unfinished dreams'


Parking is never a problem at Montreal-Mirabel International Airport, where entire days go by without a single passenger passing through the terminal. The granite floors are squeaky clean, the carpets look brand new, the aluminum trimmings are polished.

It must have made a handy set for Tom Hanks and Catherine Zeta-Jones for their recent film The Terminal. But as an airport, it is one of the great white elephants of aeronautics history -- one that mirrors many of Montreal's -- and Quebec province's -- growing pains over the last half-century.

Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau labeled the airport "a project for the 21st century" when his government promoted it in the late 1960s, viewing it as a tool to help Montreal develop into a global cultural and financial magnet and as glue to keep Quebec in Canada. The US$1 billion airport was revolutionary in its design, with a railroad station in its basement and a road tunnel under the runways to take drivers right to its international terminal.

But on Oct. 31 the final passenger flight -- an Air Transit charter flight to Paris -- will take off from its tarmac, and its once-supermodern terminal will be converted into a training center, or a casino, or a shopping center depending on the bids Aeroports de Montreal receives.

When Mirabel opened its gates in 1975, its managers predicted it would someday handle as many as 50 million passengers annually. But it never handled more than 2.8 million passengers in a year, and its operations have been winding down for years.

"We thought Mirabel was the gateway to the future, when it was really the exit ramp," said Josh Freed, a documentary filmmaker and a columnist for The Montreal Gazette.

Mirabel's sad story is a tale of planning mistakes and political paralysis. Bitter disputes between the federal government in Ottawa and a series of separatist provincial governments in Quebec City stymied the building of a high-speed rail link or even a superhighway to connect the airport to downtown Montreal.

Canadian air transport specialists had expected airlines to move to Mirabel because of its updated facilities and in response to complaints from residents on the west side of Montreal island that the noisy Boeing 707s landing in the Montreal-Dorval International Airport were making their lives unbearable.

Canadian planners foresaw the day when the supersonic Concorde would ferry Europeans across the Atlantic to Mirabel in a flash, enabling passengers to reach Montreal or Ottawa.

But soon after Mirabel opened, the much quieter Boeing 747 came to dominate international travel.

"Mirabel is a monument to unfinished dreams," said Jacques Roy, a transportation specialist at HEC Montreal business school, "dreams to provide Montreal with facilities to put us on the map for the future."

When planners and architects began working on the airport in 1967, Montreal was holding the highly successful Expo 67 World's Fair and there was a rush to build skyscrapers, an extensive subway system, highways, a performing arts center and a sizable underground shopping mall. These features define the city's contours to this day.

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