Ottawa released its long-awaited Atlantic Gateway strategy document Wednesday, along with $2.5 million more to market the region’s transportation corridors.
The marketing money – on top of $2.5 million already promised – will be spent on drumming up more shipping business through positioning the region’s port, rail and highway infrastructure as a reliable and secure transportation network between North American markets and those in Europe, the Caribbean, Latin America and Asia via the Suez Canal.
Chuck Strahl, federal minister of Transport, Infrastructure and Communities, said he was proud to officially launch the strategy.
“Working together with the private sector, we’ll make Atlantic Canada a preferred choice for international commerce coming to or leaving the East Coast of North America,” Strahl said in a release.
It’s taken since January 2007, when Ottawa and the four provinces formed an Atlantic Gateway federal-provincial officials committee, for a vision to be put in place.
The gateway strategy was motivated by a desire to spread out a $2.1-billion federal pot of money called the Gateways and Border Crossings Fund, which came out of an attempt to mirror the $1-billion Asia-Pacific Gateway and Corridor Initiative that tackled transportation infrastructure needs on the West Coast.
Industry had previously expressed frustration at delays in defining a strategy and targeting funding.
In November 2009 when then-Atlantic Gateway minister of state Peter MacKay defended why money wasn’t being spent – saying he was waiting for funding requests from provincial councils, governments and a private-sector advisory group – Ottawa had doled out about $200 million to regional projects under the gateway fund.
The strategy on Wednesday did not include that list of requests, and Ottawa said the funding figure remained about the same.
But Erin Filliter, a spokeswoman for Keith Ashfield, current minister of state for the Atlantic Gateway, said money for gateway projects amounts to much more when other funds are considered; Ottawa says that since 2006, under the Building Canada Plan, it has invested more than $400 million and leveraged funding from other governments for a total of $1.1 billion for the region’s transportation infrastructure.
David Oxner, the executive director of the private sector council chaired by Moncton trucking CEO Wes Armour, said it’s “better late than never” for the strategy.
Oxner said now executives from across Atlantic Canada can speak with one voice.
“It would be very rare for (regional) ports and even airports to co-habitate in the same booth, previously,” Oxner said.
During consultation with government officials, Oxner’s council had highlighted trucking issues: that long-combination vehicles should be allowed to move from Atlantic Canada into Ontario and that the highway between New Brunswick and Rivière-du-Loup should be twinned.
Jim Quinn, president and CEO of the Saint John Port Authority, said the only way the initiative would move forward was if regional transportation leaders could collaborate to improve infrastructure instead of fight for funding.
“There’s going to have to be a balance between promotion and competition and that’s going to take a lot of focus and a lot of co-operation,” Quinn said.
“We can compete with each other if we choose or we can compete with the world.”
One observer predicts the plan will get further bogged down by a likely federal election; opposition parties appear prepared to take down the Tory government over Tuesday’s budget.
Charles Cirtwill, president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, said the Atlantic Gateway initiative would sit idle until after a potential election. If the Conservatives are defeated, the initiative will need another party’s stamp.
“Even if we don’t have a change in government, it’s going to be, ‘We’ll have to study it for a year to assess how it fits with our new priorities,'” Cirtwill said.
The head of the Halifax-based think-tank said there was not much new in the strategy document and while more marketing money could help Atlantic Canada’s “parochial provinces,” he said real challenges for industry lie beyond the region’s borders.
“Marketing isn’t the issue for the Atlantic Gateway and never has been. Neither have port, rail or airport infrastructure, frankly,” Cirtwill said.
“The bottlenecks for us are in Quebec and in Maine,” he said.
* Canada’s third largest container port, Halifax
* Three of the five busiest Canadian ports (Come-By-Chance/Whiffen Head, N.L., Strait of Canso Superport, N.S., Saint John)
* Two of the four busiest Canadian cruise ports (Halifax, Saint John)
* International short-sea shipping
* North America’s most efficient Class 1 rail carrier with daily double-stacked container service to major U.S. and Canadian markets
* 64,000 km of highways
* Three main truck corridors
* Transload facilities
* Border rail crossings and two main commercial border crossings with the United States (St. Stephen, N.B./Calais, Maine and Woodstock, N.B./Houlton, Maine).
* Major international airports with growing air cargo operations.