HALIFAX – It’s an ambitious plan, and one that appears close to fruition.

If it becomes reality, the Melford International Terminal will sit on the mainland side of the Strait of Canso, which flows between the Nova Scotia peninsula and Cape Breton.

The proposed container terminal, its boosters point out, would be closer to Europe and Asia (via the Suez Canal) than any other deep-water port on the North American mainland.

Shippers would thus save time and fuel by pushing their goods through Melford, as opposed to New York or Savannah, Ga.

“No overhead or under keel clearance issues; no bridges, no air draft restrictions, no waiting on tides. Just smooth sailing in and smooth sailing out,” concludes the project’s website.

The question is: Is the $350-million project needed?

Richie Mann thinks so.

Mann, the project’s vice-president of marketing, says the list of benefits is lengthy.

For example, the large swath of land will house an expansive logistics park; the lack of a port authority will mean fewer fees; and the absence of existing labour agreements means Melford could be the most automated terminal in North America.

“The forecasts are good and the growth in container traffic is actually exceeding a lot of the projections,” said Mann, noting the group is now working to secure the project’s financing.

“Things are looking pretty good.”

But does the region need another container port, particularly when two terminals in Halifax are only running at one-third or one-quarter of their capacity?

In 2009, Halifax’s containerized cargo volume dropped by 11 per cent. And while an uptick is expected as the economy recovers, the port is still operating below its ability.

According to Michele Peveril, a spokeswoman with the Halifax Port Authority, the city’s two terminals can handle up to 1.4 million containers a year. Currently, only about 350,000 to 550,000 containers roll through the port each year.

Clearly there’s room for more cargo, but Peveril wouldn’t say if Melford is seen as a threat to Halifax’s efforts at luring more vessels.

Peveril says not enough is known about the Melford business plan to say whether the project can be labeled as direct competition.

“We don’t generally try to be experts in commenting on other people’s plans,” she said.

Charles Cirtwill, a keen observer of port and Atlantic Gateway developments in the region, says Melford could actually help lure additional container traffic to Nova Scotia.

“If it achieves what the proponents have been describing it as – 100 per cent privately-funded and 100 per cent targeted at new business – that’s great,” said the head of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a Halifax-based think-tank.

But Cirtwill says he fears the project will end up being publicly financed – to some degree – and in direct competition with Halifax.

“If that’s what it deteriorates into, then it’s a net loss,” he said.

As well, Cirtwill worries the Melford project will become another competitor for Atlantic Gateway money – federal funding aimed at making the Atlantic provinces the key eastern entry point for goods coming through the Suez Canal, from emerging economies like India and Vietnam.

“We could end up with 10 or 12 ports all building infrastructure, all playing for the same market, all funded by us,” Cirtwill said. “That’s not good news.”

Mann, however, says the Melford terminal – which could be operational by late 2012 or early 2013 – should not be viewed as local competition.

“It’s natural for people to automatically look at this and say, ‘Oh, they’re going to be competitive with Halifax.’ But our goal is not to compete with Halifax,” he said.

“There should be a sufficient volume of containers available to make this a profitable terminal.”