Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Friday a new pedestrian tunnel to Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport is an "important new gateway between the airport and downtown Toronto."

Harper appeared along with Mayor Rob Ford to mark the official start of the project, which will eliminate the need for the short ferry ride that connects Toronto's downtown with the increasingly busy island airport.

"Toronto is a world-class city and airports in world class cities must provide world-class service," he said in announcing regulatory changes to help clear the way for construction.

"As much as we all like the ferries, and I have all kinds of great memories riding them as a boy, lining up for one when you are rushing for a plane does not qualify as world class."

Harper also said the project, which is slated to take two years to complete and cost $60 million, will be built entirely with private money so "it won't cost taxpayers a dime."

That's because the project is being primarily funded by a private partnership that will eventually be covered by the $20 airport improvement fees that passengers at the airport are already paying.

Ford said the 240-metre tunnel will be a "new and amazing gateway to Toronto."

Passengers going into the tunnel from downtown will enter through a pavilion, and head down through elevators.

A fixed link to the airport has been a contentious issue for almost a decade. Council under former mayor David Miller scuttled plans to construct a bridge to the island in 2003.

Community groups have also voiced their criticism of the link, questioning whether the tunnel is needed at all.

Proponents say it will save time at an airport that deals with more than 1.5 million passengers annually.

PM weighs in on subway-LRT debate

The prime minister also waded into the city's debate pitting subway supporters against champions of light-rail transit. Asked if he were forced to choose a method of public transit, Harper said he would have to base his preference for subways on his experience "as a one-time commuter in this city, someone who grew up here, someone who spent a lot of time here on business in recent years."

"I prefer, when I want to use public transit, to go underground unimpeded. I prefer not to be running into LRTs and streetcars," he said, as members of the crowd applauded.

"But you know, that's just a personal view."

Harper stressed that the final decision on the future of public transit in the city lies with local politicians and citizens.

"We don’t make these decisions for municipalities and provinces. We consult with them, and in terms of what we fund, we’re ultimately driven by the priorities of people on the ground. Torontonians have to make that decision."

With files from The Canadian Press