by David Shipley

Cumbersome regulations, long waits at the American border and a growing labour shortage are the top challenges facing the transportation sector in Atlantic Canada, industry observers say.

Mary Brooks, a transportation expert at Dalhousie University, said Wednesday there are a number of concerns – including the border and labour – that need to be addressed in order to entice more container traffic to the region.

Increasing such traffic is at the heart of the Atlantic Gateway strategy.

The strategy aims to develop a North American point of entry at ports in Nova Scotia for large container ships travelling from Asia arrive via the Suez Canal. From the N.S. terminals, containers would be moved by smaller ships or by rail or road, depending on which mode of transportation offers the best combination of price and speed of deliver to large markets such as the midwestern United States or central Canada.

While the region’s ports, including its largest – Halifax – currently have the capacity to handle up to 50 per cent more container cargo without significant new investments, such traffic has yet to materialize, despite record growth in Asian container traffic at congested ports on the west coast of the continent.

“It’s a whole set of dominoes and all of them have to be completely lined up for us to have change,” said Brooks on Wednesday.

Brooks said issues such as regulatory issues at the border, road and rail connections, and convincing global shipping lines to consider new routes are examples of the “dominoes”.

Brooks has written extensively about transportation issues in Atlantic Canada and is the author of a forthcoming book on the challenges facing North American transportation in an era of terrorist threats.

She’s also the organizer of a forum, slated for Halifax on Friday, titled Access North America. The one-day session will bring together top thinkers and executives in Atlantic Canada to discuss issues such as increasing border security and delays, known as border thickening, as well as concepts like the Atlantic Gateway.

Among the speakers at the conference is Brian Bohunicky, director general of strategic policy for Transport Canada. David Chaundy, senior economist with the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council is another speaker.

Chaundy said Wednesday border crossing woes will be part of his presentation.

“Close to 80 per cent of our trade is with the U.S.,” he said.

While much of that trade is energy related and travels by sea, a great deal of it is also shipped by road and rail, said the economist.

“Anything that increases the costs, anything that increases the reliability of those shipments is going to be a big issue,” Chaundy said.

Brooks said that, while long waits to get trucks across the border crossing are one problem, other obstacles include a lack of skilled long-haul truckers and professional logisticians.

“We have a logistics program (at Dalhousie) and our students all find jobs in Ontario,” she said.

In addition to the existing challenges, the success of the Atlantic Gateway will also depend on whether or not American east coast ports gear up to compete for Asian traffic, she said.

If those ports become more competitive, tight border restrictions may make Atlantic Canada unattractive as a North American gateway.

Peter Nelson, executive director of the Atlantic Provinces Truckers Association, said Wednesday delays at the border are so frustrating for drivers that some have decided either not to take a U.S. route or have decided to exit the industry.

“You sit there and you sit there and you sit there,” he said.

Nelson said border problems aren’t likely to ease in the short-term, pointing to the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative announced during a recent summit in Quebec between U.S. President George W. Bush, Mexican President Felipe Calderon and Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

“As the (initiative) is further implemented were expecting even longer line-ups,” he said.

Addressing border delays is crucial for the continued prosperity of Atlantic Canada’s transportation sector, he said.

“We can have the best highways in the world, we can have the most expedited service coming into our ports, but it doesn’t do much good if all of the goods were moving are jammed up in Calais or Houlton (Maine) and not going anywhere.”