by Charles Cirtwill

It has been a busy few weeks for the ports of Atlantica. Preliminary numbers from the new master plan being developed for the Port of Sydney have caught people’s attention and put new energy in the efforts of Sydney’s proponents. The Port of Halifax welcomed representatives of the Province of Nova Scotia along on that port’s latest mission to India. The Halifax team is continuing the effort to make connections at both ends of the supply chain in order to take advantage of exploding global markets. The folks from Melford used the opportunity presented by the release of ACOA’s Atlantic Gateway business case to remind everyone that their proposal is asking for no public funds.

Not to be out done, the ports of Saint John, St. John’s and Belledune were all ably represented (or at least strategically mentioned at all the right times) at both a recent transportation forum held in Halifax and at the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding between the four Atlantic Provinces and the Federal Government in relation to Canada’s Gateway Fund. Even Charlottetown and the interests of PEI were tied into the immediate growth of the Gateway.

Real momentum is building on the Atlantic Gateway file and we must take advantage of it. But there are some troubling signs that we have not yet learned the lessons from other people’s success. Over the last ten years my institute has released a series of studies in this area and taken together they tell us there are several key items that we can’t afford to ignore.

First and foremost, the government must follow, not lead, on this file. All commentators generally agree that the Pacific Gateway has achieved such great success because it is private sector led. We need to immediately appoint a private sector co-chair for the Atlantic Gateway Officials Committee. We also need to change that committee’s name, mandate and composition. In appointing an equal number of private sector members to the group we should target not parochial interests (i.e., one New Brunswick company, one Nova Scotia company, etc.), but the companies in the industries that will make this opportunity a reality – our biggest shipping partners, biggest retail customers, our rail line, our terminal operators and our heaviest private sector investors. It is they who have the skill, experience and investment capital to make the business case a reality.

Speaking of the business case, we have spent 30 years (if you start the clock at Arthur D. Little Inc.’s 1978 report on “Developing a Transportation Gateway to North America”) to convince ourselves about what is in this for us. But we aren’t the ones who need convincing. We don’t own the goods that will be sold on the market shelves. We don’t make the decisions about where the ships stop or where the goods get trucked. The recent ACOA business case study clearly states that a “comprehensive supply chain cost analysis was outside the scope” of their project. In other words, we are no closer to answering the only two questions that matter. If people ship their goods via the Atlantic Gateway, can we save them time and money?

We also need to get far more comfortable with the concept of differential benefits. If it were to achieve its full potential, the Gateway will bring growth and opportunity to the entire region. But the simple truth is that the growth will not and cannot be equally divided across the region. The inevitable pressure the government will face to balance its investments to reflect local and regional priorities is one of the key reasons why it must not have a leadership role on this file.

Finally, we need to remember the entire business case. When the Americans launched a multi-modal transportation study looking at the infrastructure deficiencies in the US northeast, they started in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada and moved west. They recognized that their supply chain started here just as we need to recognize that our supply chain ends there. I would suggest we need to go even farther. If Indian ports – which are the ideal partners to grow the Atlantic Gateway – need infrastructure and other improvements, is there a potential return for an investment from this end? Can our immigration, trade and development dollars (tax dollars we already spend outside of Canada) be leveraged to grow new markets, new linkages and new investors in the Indian sub-continent?

Ultimately, just having a good business case isn’t enough. You need to make the business case work for you. Government can improve the environment, only the private sector can make it happen.

Charles Cirtwill is the acting President of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a non-partisan public policy think tank based in Halifax.