HALIFAX – Improving Atlantic ports, railways and roads could open the coast up to enhanced international trade, a new report said yesterday amid criticism that the region’s largest port of Halifax is steadily losing business and could have a tough time attracting foreign interest.

Nova Scotia MP Peter MacKay, the federal minister responsible for the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, said the so-called Atlantic Gateway would help boost imports and exports after a series of pricey upgrades to land, sea and air resources.

When asked how government and the private sector could bring in container traffic now headed to other larger ports on the eastern seaboard, MacKay wouldn’t get into specifics, but conceded the Halifax port needs help.

“This is exactly why we have to do it,” he told reporters following a business luncheon in the city. “We’re building bigger ports, more efficient ports, more efficient transportation systems and more efficient marketing systems.”

The 144-page report by InterVISTAS Consulting Inc. said there is a compelling case for focusing efforts on growing international container trade in the region through the Atlantic Gateway, an idea championed by Nova Scotia Premier Rodney MacDonald that would see the region become a major entry point into North America for trade.

It found, the improvements could create 61,000 new jobs by 2025 and result in $2.1 billion in wages and $3.4 billion in new GDP. It also concluded that the success of the Atlantic Gateway concept depends on competitive transit times, reliability and cost competitiveness, but the concept won’t become a reality without collaboration between the public and private sectors.

Charles Cirtwill of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies said he’s concerned that Ottawa might pour millions into the initiative and then leave the public saddled with the costs.

“What I really worry about is this idea that we’re going to get a private sector business case that’s then going to be supported by further investments of public money,” he said.

Ottawa promised $2.1 billion in gateway funding over seven years in its March budget. The Atlantic and Ontario-Quebec strategies will be competing for that cash. The Pacific Gateway project already got $591million outside that pot of money.

Applications for the new cash are supposed to be assessed on merit.