SAINT JOHN – An extension of the Lower Cove berth on the east side of the harbour is a top priority for port authority as officials brace for increasing volumes of large cruise vessels, says the port’s top executive.

The project would see the Lower Cove berth cut into the former sugar refinery site with a price tag that could top $20 million, Al Soppit, chief executive officer of the Saint John Port Authority, said Thursday.

That would extend the roughly 245-metre berth by another roughly 50 metres, allowing large-sized cruise vessels to safely dock. Lower Cove could then be counted as the third terminal capable of docking cruise vessels up to 300 metres long.

“We need to look at the extension of that pier, so that when we have three large cruise vessels at port, we can accommodate them all,” said Soppit. “We need a third berth, because we don’t want to be put into a situation where we have to turn ships away.”

The port authority is banking on a lucrative real estate deal with Irving Oil to make way for the project. The deal would see the company lease Long Wharf and, in exchange, purchase the former sugar refinery site from the city and transfer ownership to the port.

Irving Oil would build its new corporate headquarters on Long Wharf, while the port officials would consolidate its property on the east side.

Pending city and federal approval, the land swap could come as early as the fall.

The cruise business is now the port’s second-largest revenue generator. This year, 81 ships will bring an estimated 186,000 passengers and 9,000 crew members, spending an expected $40 million in the region.

Soppit said the port is expecting as many as four ships in one day this year, though they are expected to vary in size. But as the cruise business grows, large ships are expected to come in greater numbers, creating a real need for a third berth, said Soppit.