Work on closing one runway at the Edmonton City Centre Airport began on Tuesday.

This is the first phase of the planned shutdown of the downtown flight hub, a decision that was made last year by city council after years of fierce public debate.

Steve Maybee, director of airside operations at the airport, said that a number of precautions had been taken to signal to pilots that runway 16/34 — one of two runways at the airport — was closed. Six large Xs have been painted along the length of the runway, and the markings have been blacked out.

"We've also removed the airfield lighting, so it's not lit up," he told CBC News. "So really, from the pilot's perspective, this does not look like a runway."

According to Maybee, the remaining runway will be able to handle any additional traffic, with no effect on the number of landings and takeoffs.

Envision Edmonton, the main force of opposition to the airport’s closing, has already begun collecting signatures to put the issue on the ballot of this fall’s municipal elections. They have until Aug. 24 to gather 78,000 names on a petition in order to trigger a vote.

‘David and Goliath’

The battle over the City Centre Airport has stretched over several decades.

In 1992, voters narrowly chose to keep the airport running with passenger services. In a 1995 referendum, voters supported shunting all scheduled passenger flights to Edmonton International Airport but not shutting down the downtown airfield.

"It is a David and Goliath, but we have the public on our side," Ed Schlemko, a pilot and Envision Edmonton director. "We've done the polling."

"The more we go, the more we have people who want to volunteer, want to help," said Dean Braithwaite, one of the volunteers trying to make the airport's future an election issue. "It feels like we have momentum on our side and we're picking up steam."

Advocates say the City Centre Airport, with its private and charter flights, is vital for the business community, as a hub to the north, and for medevac flights. About 4,000 medevac flights a year go through the airport.

Opponents want the 58 hectares of land developed into a transit-oriented community with housing for thousands of people, along with commercial and retail space and room for the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology to expand its campus westward.