By Tera Camus

Imagine a ship carrying 15,000 containers. It’s so big that to unload its cargo and line it up end-to-end would create a line 70 kilometres long.

That’s how Abdel Tawab Haggag of the Suez Canal Authority described the potential economic spinoff for Nova Scotia if it unloaded just one of the 41,000 container ships that pass through the 190km long canal between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean every year.

“We believe the Sydney port is nearest to Europe and (the) Suez Canal so it can attract traffic to the east North America coast and has a real opportunity to be a gateway,” Mr. Haggag told about 200 officials attending the 30th annual Sydney’s Ports Day on Thursday.

Some of the reasons behind Sydney’s potential to become an Atlantic gateway for North American markets mirrors why Halifax and the Strait of Canso are in good shape to become bigger or new container ports — there’s plenty of land available to store containers, harbours are relatively deep and protected, and all areas have access to good train tracks and highways, he said.

“It could have good success here (in Sydney),” Mr. Haggag told The Chronicle Herald. “The West Coast is congested and so many (ships) spend (time) waiting even for intermodule traffic (after landing),” he said, noting that time means money.

And there’s no time to waste, he said, given the Suez Canal Authority is projecting a heavy increase in container traffic by 2010 from Asian to North American markets.

“It depends on the trade, if it grows, it will be (needed) faster,” he said. “They have to save time (here) and not spend so much time in development . . . a port with inland transportation is more important. One visit (by a ship) would need more than 50 trains to move cargo.”

“They need dredging . . . they need to dig them deeper,” he said while suggesting how government can help a port prepare to become a cargo gateway.

Transportation and Public Works spokesman David Oxner, whose department is responsible for the province’s Atlantic gateway initiative, says Mr. Haggag is on the mark and dredging is an issue that may have to be addressed. But Mr. Oxner says which port gets developed will be decided by the private sector.

“It won’t be up to us, it will be up to the private sector to decide where they want to build and how they want to ship,” he said. “Government’s role is to act as a champion and facilitator to bring groups together and work with the federal government to bring in gateway funding.”

Halifax is operating at 55 per cent capacity, handling about 550,000 containers and has a potential to handle 2 million containers. But already there’s heavy truck congestion moving goods off the Halifax peninsula. About 70 percent of the cargo now is moved by train.

“There’s growth in the Suez Canal and it’s being driven by west coast port congestion and Panama Canal constraints and we think there’s a huge opportunity for Nova Scotia,” Mr. Oxner said. “Coming through the Suez, Nova Scotia is actually closer to the North America (market) as the first in and last out port.”

Also, Sydney has no issues when it comes to congested streets or available land to store containers.

Laurentian Energy chief executive officer Jim Wooder says his company has spent more than $600,000 to test the idea of establishing Sydney’s first container port on its 450 acres of land at Sydport in Point Edward. The area is flat, well protected from wind and waves and can be “easily transformed into a state-of-the art container terminal” at the “lowest cost” anywhere in North America.

“In the last year, 14 months, we’ve been working very, very hard to make sure there’s a fundamentally sound business case to locate a container terminal here. We’ve been in the market, and have preferred partners identified and the feedback we’re receiving is extremely positive,” he said. “It could definitely happen here.”

“We spend a lot of money because we know Sydport is a winner.”