Gateway Stonewalled?

The Atlantic Gateway is billed as a big-budget, multi-pronged strategy that will make Canada’s East Coast a vital artery in the world economy. Outlined in detail at theatlanticgateway.ca, it’s essentially a strategic plan to make Nova Scotia a global door to North America, especially capturing the giant post-Panamax ships from Asia and India and delivering their goods via smaller ships or land transport to the rest of the continent. It’s focused on Nova Scotia, but proponents say economic spill-off will benefit the rest of Atlantic Canada, especially New Brunswick. But Mark Eyking describes it as a political shell game where old money is branded new and handed out to regions that might vote for the federal government.

The Liberal MP for Sydney-Victoria says that means his Cape Breton community gets shut out. He has a wish list for Gateway funding posted to his website, including a second cruise ship berth, a Marine Atlantic docks and the establishment of a Coast Guard icebreaker and berth. At the top of his list is a $38-million plan to deepen Sydney Harbour so it could welcome the biggest cargo ships in the world. Sydney’s niche would be taking large ships and transferring the cargo to smaller ships for transportation into New York and Philadelphia, leaving Halifax as the rail hub to move goods inland. The project could create up to 6,000 jobs, he says, but Ottawa isn’t listening.

“It has the potential of really substituting the jobs we lost in coal and steel,” Eyking says. “I find it really disrespectful and irresponsible for them to all of a sudden to say they didn’t know this was happening. It’s pretty disgraceful. There’s no doubt Ottawa knew this was a priority. Everybody else was there and now we’re trying to pull them in kicking and screaming. It’s not a lot of money when you think of the big picture.”

In June 2010, Nova Scotia’s NDP government offered to spend up to $15.2-million on the project, if the federal government would cover the rest. The Cape Breton Regional Municipality has already committed $2-million and Nova Scotia Power said it would add $1-million. A delegation was sent to Ottawa to seek the money. Eyking, who didn’t go on that trip, says the project has Atlantic Gateway written all over it, but it’s not getting the funding.

“The reality is for $19-million, the feds would have got off pretty good for the amount of economic spinoff they would have had here,” he says.

Ekying, who served in Paul Martin’s cabinet, argues that an upsurge in the global market and a new class of giant ships taking to the oceans means the timing is perfect. A crew capable of doing the deepening is even passing by Sydney later this year, but the federal foot dragging could sink the project, he says. When he raised the issue in the House of Commons in April 2010, Keith Ashfield, the Minister of National Revenue, rolled off a list of Gateway accomplishments. Eyking says they all would have happened anyway.

The only results he sees for the Gateway money are small initiatives like new hiking trails, which hardly open up Sydney to the world. The Prime Minister’s Office doesn’t want to “waste” money on areas it isn’t likely to win federal seats in, he says. “It smells politically. I think this Atlantic Gateway was just smoke and mirrors. I’m afraid they’re moving dollars around.”

He says that’s apparent even to Conservative politicians in the area, though in a grumbling-in-the-bar way. “I think the potential for helping them with their numbers in the next election is just getting dimmer and dimmer because people have given up on the federal government,” Eyking says. “There’s nothing else in here that tells me why they wouldn’t do it, except political interference. If they do ever eventually step up to the plate, I believe that they’re going to have to try to make up the difference. The stakeholders have put as much skin in the game as they ever could.”

David Oxner, executive director of the Atlantic Gateway, disagrees. He rattles off a list of Gateway-funded accomplishments, including the twinning of New Brunswick’s Route 1 between Saint John and St. Stephen to facilitate traffic to the U.S. and upgrades to that border crossing with Calais, Maine.  He says Nova Scotia has seen work on the Halifax port, including the deepening of the Halterm container terminal to allow it to berth two post-Panamax vessels and improvements to the truck gate and work upgrading the Richmond terminal.

Highways connecting Halifax to the rest of North America have been improved too, he says, and it’s been done with new money. Gateway funding, which comes from federal coffers, offers up to $.50 on the dollar raised by other groups, such as provincial and municipal governments or the private sector.

“Really, Gateway is just a fancy word for international trade,” Oxner says. “I don’t think it’s something you stop one day and say we’re completely finished. Ports and private-sector businesses continually look at ways of growing and improving services.”

He says the work is paying off. Halifax is still operating at about half of its capacity, but business at the port is up this year and much of that volume is coming from India, China and Vietnam –  key areas targeted by the Gateway initiative.

With a new fleet of 300 super ships expected to hit the oceans in the next few years, he expects to see container lines shift their cargo away from small ships to the more fuel-efficient behemoths. Those giants need big harbours to land in and Halifax, along with Norfolk and New York, is perfectly situated to do that on the eastern coast of North America. It has three berths capable of holding the super ships and a fourth is on its way.

While it is the Atlantic Gateway, Oxner says Halifax is the key to the whole project. Halifax and Saint John, N.B. are the two international ports in the region and will take centre stage, supported by regional ports. Halifax has the additional advantage of an international airport and a large cruise-ship market.

“The dredging piece [in Sydney] is a separate issue. There is a port here in Halifax and there’s one in Saint John, so things will balance themselves out as the initiative moves forward. There’s room for everybody in this, it just depends on from what perspective you look at it,” he says.

Oxner offered no reasons why the Sydney project hadn’t gotten funding, saying it was a matter for the federal and provincial governments to work out.  The inter-city squabbling is overplayed by the media, he says. “There may be competition for funding, but I don’t see the ports fighting with one another.”

Most of the Gateway infrastructure projects are run by the private sector, which he says makes it less political than it seems. In a “flat world” global economy, good news for Halifax is good news for Sydney.

Oxner insists Gateway is making real progress. If it continues the pace it’s on, 20 years in the future will seem like a trip to the past, with a vibrant east coast economy thriving in welcoming the world’s trade to North America. “There are a lot of opportunities to do coastal trade and to move goods internationally,” he says.

Mary Brooks, a professor of marketing and transportation at Halifax’s Dalhousie University, has spoken about the Gateway project for four years. She says political complaints lose sight of the bigger picture. “There’s more to a gateway than just infrastructure dollars,” she says. “What the federal government supplies is just one piece of a total mindset about growing business through Atlantic Canada.”

For her, Gateway investment extends to improving the universities to in turn improve the work force. When it comes to infrastructure, she notes only three Atlantic Canadian ports are full service: Halifax, Saint John and St. John’s, NL. As Halifax has the biggest port, the biggest university population and is the biggest economic centre in the region, it’s going to get the lion’s share of investment.

According to “Coordination and Cooperation in Strategic Port Management: The Case for Atlantic Canada’s Ports,” a recent paper to which Brooks contributed (available at citt.management.dal.ca), 144.8-million tons of cargo were handled by Atlantic Canada’s ports in 2005, up from 90.2-million tons in 2000. The rise was largely energy-related products such as crude petroleum. The international/domestic split was steady at 70/30. The paper said 75 per cent of Halifax’s container imports and exports come from, or are going to, markets more than 800 kilometres away, making a good transportation gateway vital.

Still, teamwork among the Atlantic Gateway areas is limited, especially when compared to North Europe. “Cooperation among ports in high density gateways with high centrality is a way to mitigate demands on port land space and spread the load among neighbouring ports,” the authors write. “Ports on the periphery, without these pressures, do not see the same need to participate in coordination and cooperation activities, especially of the formal variety.”

Brooks says Atlantic Canadians need to pull together, not apart, and building a better Atlantic Gateway would go a long way to growing the entire region. “We have to make sure it’s not an ‘Us or them,’ it’s a ‘We together’,” she says. “Sometimes what’s good for Halifax is good for the rest of Atlantic Canada, too.”

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About Jon Tattrie

Jon Tattrie is a freelance journalist and writer based in Halifax. He's a board member of the Writers' Federation of Nova Scotia and regularly speaks to universities, colleges and schools on journalism and writing. His debut novel, Black Snow, was published by Pottersfield Press in April 2009. His first non-fiction book, The Hermit of Africville, was released in the summer of 2010.

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