by Neil Reynolds

Ottawa – Economist Brian Lee Crowley imagines new ways to look at boundary lines on maps, which have a hypnotic, mind-numbing way of making the world look more permanent, more finished, than it is. He has made the imaginary Atlantica a real place — real enough, at any rate, for the United States to spend a million dollars for a study of its infrastructure, real enough for Liberal leadership candidate Scott Brison to give it a prominent place in his platform. Mr. Crowley has made the East Coast an important part of the Pacific Rim. And he has marvellously made Buffalo, a forlorn ruin of a city on the northern tip of Lake Erie, a frontier metropolis of Atlantic Canada.

For anyone who hasn’t travelled Atlantica, this visionary cross-border commonwealth extends westward from the Atlantic Ocean and southward from the Saint Lawrence River and Lake Ontario to the southern boundaries of New Hampshire and Vermont. It thus includes Canada’s Atlantic provinces, part of Quebec, Maine, the northern part of New England and Upper New York State.

Divided between two countries, it’s as much a concept as a region — yet bound together by history and by economics, by colonial wars and by colonial peace treaties and by natural trade routes that enriched it before (as Maritimes historian Ernie Forbes expressed it) Confederation pushed Atlantic Canada a thousand miles further out to sea. Now, though, its shared attributes are slow growth rates, low wages and declining populations.

Atlantica, in short, is a metaphor for a part of North America that belonged together but got wrongfully, irreparably, torn asunder. As president of the Halifax-based Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS), Mr. Crowley has worked both sides of the border in pursuit of the regional co-operation that could restore the trade routes of yesteryear — though in a 21st-century way.

He introduced Atlantica in a speech to New England governors and Atlantic premiers in Halifax six years ago. Calling on the premiers to dismiss political union of the Maritime provinces (as too “19th century”), he advocated a larger economic embrace that would include Quebec and New England: “Let’s call it Atlantica.”

Thus his call to woefully depressed Buffalo this past summer: “You have the opportunity to put yourself on the trade route that connects Asia to the heartland of America.” All Buffalo needed, he said, was infrastructure investment — especially a decent east-west corridor highway. And the United States has already designated this particular trade route a high-level national priority; it will pay 80 per cent of the $1-billion (U.S.) cost. With a superhighway that connects it directly to the East Coast, Buffalo becomes a principal gateway to the American Midwest, the American Northeast — and Ontario’s exports-driven cities.

And at the other end of this new trade route to Toronto? Well, naturally, all of Europe. And, in Mr. Crowley’s analysis, most of Asia, too — China, India, Southwest Asia. In a report co-written by Stephen Kymlicka, AIMS’ designated expert on Atlantica, Mr. Crowley says that West Coast ports will reach capacity by 2010. Indeed, the authors cite a report published last year by Drewry Shipping Consultants that says these ports could reach capacity as early as 2007, with capacity deficits hitting two million TEUs a year. (A TEU, a “twenty-foot equivalent unit,” is a container that measures 20 feet by 8 feet by 8 feet; most containers now are 40 feet long and hold two TEUs.).

In fact, Drewry says growth in demand for container cargo in the coming years will equal Halifax’s present capacity multiplied by four.

And “post-Panamax” vessels will be too big to pass through the Panama Canal.

Most of them will carry 15,000 containers instead of 3,000, 4,000 or 5,000. On the East Coast, New York and Philadelphia are already at capacity. Only deepwater ports — such as Halifax and Norfolk, Va. — will be able to handle them. In this way, the East Coast becomes literally an extension of the Pacific Rim — albeit via the Suez Canal — and Halifax-Buffalo becomes one of the continent’s most efficient trade routes. (AIMS says it will save a whole day in transit time — and in cost.)

And Buffalo connects with Ontario, Atlantica’s principal and traditional market. More than five million heavy trucks a year use Atlantica’s 23 heavy-truck border crossings — 40 per cent of all NAFTA-related truck crossings in the country. As world trade expands, container shipping will expand with it — but at an accelerating rate. In 1980, containers handled 20 per cent of all cargo trade. In 1990, 40 per cent. In 2000, 70 per cent. AIMS says that by 2010, it could be 90 per cent.

Atlantica needs the highway corridor and border crossings to move container cargo fast and efficiently. An off-loaded container leaves behind an economic benefit of roughly $1,000; take 15,000 containers off a single supership in Halifax and pocket $15-million in rewards. The United States has already made a huge commitment to Atlantican infrastructure. Canada needs to match this investment. It’s time to pull Atlantic Canada back to shore.

Mail to: nreynolds@xplornet.com