Proponents of trade bloc argue improving road, rail and air infrastructure will bring about regional economic renaissance

By David Shipley


SAINT JOHNBordered on the north and west by Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River, Atlantica stretches out to the Atlantic Ocean, reaches south along the I-90 highway to Buffalo and touches the southern borders of Vermont and New Hampshire.

It spans the Atlantic provinces, parts of Quebec and Ontario and the northern New England states.

And, if its backers are right, it is a region on the edge of an economic revival – a trade bloc that can generate billions of dollars in economic spinoffs.

“What Atlantica is about is putting us on the road to the major destinations that drive the world economy, making us a crossroads of world trade,” said Brian Lee Crowley, president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, “whereas before we’ve been on the margin of world trade.”

The institute is an economic and social policy lobby group and one of the core promoters of the Atlantica concept.

“The richest societies in the world are not the big, huge, powerful industrial manufacturing economies, they are the tiny little economies on their margins who act as kind of a conduit. They’re the people that move stuff back and forth in both directions,” says Mr. Crowley.

“You think about Holland or Singapore or Switzerland, all of them are very small, very wealthy countries that exist on the edge of these giant powerful economies and they have positioned themselves as the gateway or the road that inevitably must be used if you want to get to these major destinations.”

But for Atlantica to fulfil its promise, it must first solve the hurdles to moving goods from north to south.

Transportation infrastructure – from ports to highways, railways and airports – is one of the issues under discussion this weekend at the Reaching Atlantica: Business Without Boundaries conference in Saint John. More than 400 businesspeople, bureaucrats and politicians have gathered in the Port City to discuss transportation, energy, tourism and growing the Atlantica region.

John Murphy, the head of the transportation group within J.D. Irving, Limited, is responsible for more than 1,600 people who help move goods by road, rail and by sea.

Mr. Murphy says while the port of Halifax is now an occasional stop for massive ships that carry more than 8,000, 20-foot equivalent containers, improving the port and the transportation links running from it could make it a regular port of call of such ships.

“There’s an opportunity to make this region a gateway to the industrial heartland of North America,” Mr. Murphy says. “But that won’t last forever. The question is, can we capitalize? Can we find those key elements that will allow us to be very competitive and efficient and attract that business on a long-term basis?”

Attracting such large-scale global commerce to Atlantica will draw resources to the region that will seed new manufacturing businesses, he says. And that, in turn, will be mean good-paying jobs for skilled labour.

For Tim Woodcock, a former mayor of Bangor, Me., developing Atlantica is chiefly about bolstering regional competitiveness.

“With the passage of the Free Trade Agreement and NAFTA, both of which were intended to, at least for economic purposes, blur the international frontier, we began to enter an era in which commerce was going to be attracted or repelled from regions based on whatever advantages and efficiencies they offered,” Mr. Woodcock says.

“What should have happened in 1989 is there should have been a joint reassessment of the shared region to see whether it was structurally prepared to participate in this new regional economic competition,” says Mr. Woodcock, now a lawyer and founder of the East-West Highway Association in Maine.

Atlantica’s western neighbour is the Quebec-to-Windsor corridor, which flows through the industrial, economic and demographic heartland of Canada. The southern edge of Atlantica is bordered by the Appalachian economic region, which stretches from Pennsylvania through West Virginia and encompasses part of Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi.

Also to the south, there is the an economic triangle which includes Albany, New York, New York City and Boston and is known as the New Atlantic Triangle.

With competition now on a larger regional basis, bolstering infrastructure links and working together to grow as a region are vital to future success, says Mr. Woodcock.

From where he sits in Bangor, the port of Saint John is just as, if not more important to Bangor than nearby U.S. ports, he adds.

“I think those two communities have begun to develop a very clear sense that their destinies are linked. I find it more and more the case in the Bangor business community that they see Saint John and Saint John’s opportunities as being linked to their own.”

Developing a modern transportation corridor between the two cities is key to propelling the Atlantica bloc forward.

While Atlantic Canada has recognized the importance of developing its highways to its economy, Maine is faced with aging highways and a restrictive weight limit on the major interstate highway.

While provinces and states around Maine allow 100,000 pound trucks to travel on major highways, U.S. laws compel trucks weighing more than 80,000 pounds to use rural roads north of Augusta, preventing them from using the more modern interstate highway and a more direct route from Saint John to Bangor.

Loosening weight restrictions and lobbying for a new east-west highway in Maine are top priorities, says Neil Jacobsen, chief operating officer for Enterprise Saint John.

“I think the other piece of this that we can’t forget about is the twinning of the Trans-Canada Highway through northern New Brunswick and the Saint John River Valley to Quebec. That’s an important part of this Atlantic infrastructure as well.”

While improving highway infrastructure is important, other transportation issues – including increased co-operation among ports and improving railway links – are also critical.

“The corridor, the way I envision it, is port, rail, highway. It’s energy transmission.

“It’s basically anything that effectively moves people, ideas, investment, trade, commerce and tourists between our respective regions.”

Improving the links between ports and encouraging coastal shipping is a vital part of Atlantica and could help ease truck traffic congestion on the I-95 highway.

Such links are already beginning to surface, with a new sea shipping route now established between Portland, Me., and Halifax.

One major piece of the transportation puzzle within Atlantica is the Canadian and U.S. border. With more than 590 commercial trucks crossing the border every day at St. Stephen and Woodstock, having a smooth flowing and secure border is vital for building up trade in Atlantica, says Mr. Jacobsen.

Mr. Jacobsen says with investments underway in St. Stephen for a new bridge and border crossing, along with upgrades already done in Woodstock, he’s confident the border won’t be a barrier to increasing trade.

“I do think where the opportunity lies is embracing new technology,” he says.

“Let’s put the absolute best and most state-of-the-art technology that we can put in place that will help screen the trade and people that legitimately need to flow and want to flow between our regions.”