Today’s announcement to sell back much of the Mirabel Airport reserve lands to farmers is another nail in the coffin of the optimism of the 1960s. A quick skim of Mirabel’s article at wikipedia will give a pretty quick summary of the airports ambitions and principle failures- too big, too far, and designed for growth that was never to happen as economics and technology made Montreal less of a hub.
But in the end, hindsight like this is what happens once reality tarnishes optimism and desire. When Mirabel was conceived, Montreal was a necessary stop-over before or after heading to Europe, in part because government licencing forced Europe-bound flights to choose Montreal, but also because 707s and their brethren needed to stop for gas. But the history of technology, especially aviation in the post war period, was one where range and speed were always increased with each new generation, and industry regulation slowly but surely gave way to much broader market-based route planning. It is impossible now to concieve that something bigger was not around the corner, but clearly at the time the powers that be did not.
I also am not totally sure that we can fault them for that. I think that it is always reasonable to assume that range and flight capacity will increase, but in the 1970s, technology had developed at what would almost certainly would have seemed an unsustainable rate. But what is more, Dorval was in a location that limited much further development, and at the very least could be better used for other purposes. Had proper infrastructure been built to support Mirabel, and the number of passengers going through Montreal stayed the same, Mirabel today might not be a ghost airport, just one that was hoped to be a lot more.
In the end, however, white elephants like this are a sign of failed ambition. Expo, the Olympics, all with the Quiet Revolution in the background, had made Montreal an even more happening place then today, and Mirabel is part of that thinking. Mirabel turned out to be a waste of money, and perhaps needn’t have been, but I think that what is more frustrating about it is not that a billion dollars was lost, though that hurts, but it reminds us of what we have not become.
So, is this all a lament that things aren’t as good as they used to be? Nope. Nor do I mean to fall into the same sky is falling routine that I lament. But I do think that if, as a country, we do plan on being more than we seem, we need to keep thinking that we are. That doesn’t mean building airports in the middle of nowhere, or even deepwater harbours where mostly there is ice. But it does mean that we have to think a little ahead, and believe that there is more to the country that low taxes and the “fiscal imbalance”.
Horserace Politics alert: As much as the sale mostly makes sense, its an odd announcement a week before christmas, just as Harper’s I thought it odd that he would choose to make a very public speech about the ills of an un-elected senate the week before MPs took a 6-week vacation. So, just for fun, I thought that I’d take a look at the results of the last election in the area. Poking around adjacent ridings produces similar results- tories in a very, very distant second. That said, if there is going to be Conservative growth in Quebec, pigs may fly, but it’ll be areas like this.