In Brief: Federal cabinet minister Peter MacKay says the $2.1 billion Atlantic Gateway fund will help the area become a major international trading post. AIMS Executive Vice-President Charles Cirtwill explains it’s not how much you spend, but how you spend it that is important. He says without a strategy the fund could be wasted.

Despite the lack of a clear Atlantic Gateway plan, the minister responsible for the file says economic stimulus spending on infrastructure projects this year will prop up the economy and turn the region into a major hub for international trade.

‘There’s a $2.1 billion gateway fund that was placed in the last budget,’ said Nova Scotia MP Peter MacKay during a press conference at CFB Gagetown. ‘That money has not been spoken for in its entirety.’

Peter MacKay, minister responsible for Atlantic Gateway, said Monday “shovel-ready” infrastructure projects that are part of the four-province transportation initiative will be targeted to receive Atlantic Gateway funding and economic stimulus spending.

When asked by reporters if there would be spending on gateway projects this year, MacKay said: “The short answer to your question is yes.

“It’s certainly our intention in addition to many of the other infrastructure projects that we hope to have shovel ready and under way throughout New Brunswick and Atlantic Canada and the country that will include gateway projects as well,” said MacKay during a press conference at CFB Gagetown. MacKay said there is a $2.1 billion gateway fund that was placed in the last budget.

“That money has not been spoken for in its entirety,” he said. “That’s not to say some of the projects that have been identified – for example highway and port infrastructure – would not be eligible for other pools of money.”

But critics say without an Atlantic Gateway strategy – which would include objectives of the initiative and different transportation projects by priority – the money could be wasted on make-work projects.

“The real danger is that up until now you haven’t seen a lot of willy-nilly spending on politician pet projects,” said Charles Cirtwell, executive vice-president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies.

“But now with an even bigger pool of money on the table and without any clear rules there could be a lot of waste around these so-called gateway projects,” he said. “That’s the challenge. We need to spend the money wisely but without a plan we might not be maximizing our spending.”

In New Brunswick there are some projects that would benefit from accelerated spending, Cirtwell said, such as the highway between Saint John and St. Stephen.

“There are many projects that would increase the competitiveness of businesses in Atlantic Canada but we need to weigh all the projects together so we’re not picking and choosing,” he said.

However MacKay said that a private-sector advisory council and provincial committees have helped determine the priorities of the Atlantic Gateway.

“Those gateway committees – both private sector committees and the provincial elected committees that provide guidance as to their priorities – give us a greater ability to identify the need,” said MacKay.

The next meeting of the Atlantic Gateway federal-provincial officials committee is scheduled for April 8 in Moncton. They will meet with the newly formed private-sector Atlantic Gateway Council that was recently announced by Wes Armour.

“What we’re attempting to do clearly is build a gateway that is going to attract much of the container traffic that we know will be headed for North America,” he said. “We want to make Atlantic Canada a porthole that is an open gate to provide safe passage into the larger North American market.”

While Atlantic Provinces Economic Council president Elizabeth Beale says she’s pleased MacKay appears dedicated to the “political football” that is the Atlantic Gateway, there still lacks a clear strategy.

“This file has been stagnant because there have been so many players and regional interests,” she said during an interview from Halifax.

“It’s in our interest to think more strategically about how to develop our ports,” she said. “You can’t just let cities like Halifax and Montreal slug it out and throw barbs at one another. We need to think about what’s in the national interest here and develop a national transportation strategy that looks at ports and rails before we start spending money.”

Beale said the idea for the Gateway initiative was first introduced five years ago when the Pacific Gateway was established.

“They were trying to resolve the flow of container traffic through the West coast ports,” she said. “It was at a premium at that point in terms of blockages through B.C. ports.”

In Atlantic Canada, however, there is excess capacity and under-utilized capacity at the existing ports, Beale said.

“The Atlantic Gateway has a much more complex set of issues than the Pacific Gateway was faced with,” she said.