NPF: WHITE ELEPHANT

Posted in No Politics Friday on May 17th, 2013 by Ed

There's something inherently interesting, not to mention disturbing, about abandoned places. The internet agrees, as it has fueled the growth in "urban exploration" as a (white, middle class) hobby. Search around and you'll find that pictures of abandoned factories, amusement parks, and malls aplenty. Personally, my favorite type of man-made wreckage is a good old fashioned white elephant. They might not be abandoned in the strictest sense, but they have this special kind of sad, pointless emptiness that you can't find anywhere else. Imagine walking around a museum alone or being the only fan in an entire stadium. But enough about going to Miami Marlins games.

I've never been to Montreal, but it is the Graceland of giant, burdensome, staggeringly expensive, useless public works projects. There's Olympic Stadium, but that's a story for another day. Here's a good trivia question. What is the largest airport in the world by area? While this title is now disputed*, I'm going to guess that Montreal-Mirabel Airport was not on the tip of your tongue. Why? Because you can't actually book a flight into the world's biggest, and almost totally empty, airport. At a hard-to-comprehend 396 square kilometers in area, Mirabel opened in 1975 (for the 1976 Montreal Olympics) and is easily visible from space.

mirabel-icar-1

Are you sure it's big enough? For the planes carrying tens of millions of people to…Montreal?

The gargantuan airport hasn't had passenger service for over a decade, handling only cargo traffic. The city has spent 30 years trying to find alternate uses for it – it has been used variously as a Formula 1 racetrack, a Bombardier airplane factory, a movie set, warehouse space, and more. For a while they were even talking about turning into an amusement park. So how does a city build the world's biggest airport and it ends up totally empty?

After Expo 67 (the spiritual successor of the great World Fairs of the late 19th/early 20th Centuries) and their winning bid to host the Summer Olympics of 1976, the city fathers in Montreal were making some boldly optimistic projections of the city's future (and possibly doing a lot of blow as well). Along with the Canadian federal government they began planning massive new infrastructure projects. Montreal was served by a relatively small city airport, Dorval (now – because god has a sense of humor – named Pierre Trudeau International) which was handling an unplanned amount of international traffic. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, airliners did not have the range we're accustomed to today. So west coast flights to Europe, Africa, the Mideast, etc commonly stopped in Montreal to re-fuel before crossing the Atlantic. So they hatched a brilliant plan.

Projecting that Montreal's airports would be handling a staggering 20 million passengers annually, they drew up plans for Mirabel to handle all international flights. Domestic flights would continue to use Dorval. When Mirabel opened, though, the floods of passengers never came. First, technological advances made it unnecessary for newer airliners to make refueling stops. Second, nobody within or outside of Montreal wanted to use the damn thing. It was built more than an hour's drive from the city (Dorval is much closer) and the promised high-speed rail line to connect the city and airport never materialized. It was expensive, so the airlines hated it. And because it could offer the size of a major airport with the convenience of domestic connections, airlines decided to avoid Montreal altogether and just fly to Pearson International in Toronto (the one Rush wrote a song about). After twenty years the governments collectively gave up on Mirabel and…expanded Dorval to accommodate 20 million passengers, which I guess they kinda could have done in the first place. At its peak, Mirabel handled 3 million passengers in one year. This is the amount of passengers handled in 2012 by the 52nd busiest airport in the U.S. – Port Columbus International in lovely Columbus, Ohio. Check out the bustling terminal at Mirabel today!

NKN-2007-08-05_144714_MIRABEL_AIRPORT(Yvan_Leduc_author_for_Wikipedia)

Let's just say things didn't pan out. And it's still standing to remind everyone of its failure. We've all made bad predictions and worse plans, but a literal concrete-and-steel monument has never been built to your bad ideas. Whoever finds this planet in a few thousand years after we're long gone will be baffled by it. Fittingly, they will probably land at Dorval. "Why would you land at the one that's farther away?" they will ask in their strange, alien tongue. Good question. Good question.