by Brian Flinn

ACOA Minister Peter MacKay delivered what he called a “compelling” case for federal investment in the Atlantic Gateway yesterday. But it’s unclear what he intends to build.

“The business case shows our ability to take a leading role on the world stage,” MacKay told a business audience in Halifax. “If we build it, they will come.”

He promised a “significant portion” of the $2.1 billion the federal Conservative government has earmarked for gateway projects over the next seven years.

The report, which cost taxpayers $200,000, predicts the Gateway will create 61,300 jobs and $3.4 billion in new economic activity by 2025. Airports are important, but most of the growth depends on meeting container projections. Despite dropping container traffic at Halifax, the region’s busiest port, the report predicts those cargoes will almost quadruple by 2025.

Those sunny projections are based on the natural advantages shared by Halifax and the Strait of Canso, where a new container terminal is proposed. Deep, ice-free harbours will allow those ports to handle massive new post-Panamax container ships.

Some competing U.S. ports are too shallow. And Nova Scotia is 492 nautical miles (911 kilometres) closer to the Suez Canal than the port of New York. The canal is capable of handling big ships from the growing economies of South Asia.

Charles Cirtwill, acting president of the Atlantic Institute of Market Studies, said Halifax already has those advantages, yet container traffic is down slightly over the past six years in a booming world market.

“I wouldn’t buy into ‘build it, they will come,'” he said. “We built it, they haven’t necessarily come. We should be focusing on trying to get the trend reversed with our existing infrastructure.”

The Port of Halifax is running at about 50 per cent capacity. British Columbia secured the first federal gateway funding two years ago. That $591 million will help service a new container terminal in Prince Rupert and relieve congestion in Vancouver caused by exploding Asian trade.

The Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency business case does not say specifically what Atlantic Gateway infrastructure needs to be funded. But it offers some hints. It talks about road congestion facing container trucks in Halifax. It says CN Rail’s monopoly in the region is a problem.

MacKay talked about twinning roads, perhaps referring to Highway 104 in his riding. It leads to the proposed container terminal at Melford, Guysborough Co.

“We have yet to determine where all of those strategic investments will be, but clearly we have a pretty good idea,” MacKay told reporters. “That is going to be merit-based and evidence-based.”

The Halifax Port Authority is trying to develop clients in India. President and CEO Karen Oldfield said more marketing needs to be done. The study says Halifax is less known today than it was in the late 1970s, when it was in the top 35 container ports in the world.

“Nobody has heard about Halifax, Nova Scotia,” Oldfield said. “People don’t really know about Atlantic Canada. We have a lot of work to do to increase the awareness of our region.”