by David Shipley

A federal government fund for trade corridors may end up doing more harm than good to efforts to build the Atlantic Gateway, says the head of a Halifax-based think tank.

Charles Cirtwill, acting president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, said Tuesday a $2.1 billion national trade gateway fund may reignite interprovincial fighting instead of helping promote regional co-operation.

“Basically what the federal government has done is push us back into the old-style political discussion, the ‘I want my fair share of the $2 billion’,” said Cirtwill.

Cirtwill’s comments come after the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency released an in-depth business case study on the Atlantic Gateway on Friday. According to the study, the economic boost of the gateway could , produce 61,100 new jobs, $2.1 billion in wages and $3.4 billion in GDP growth in the region by 2025. The report may open the door for Atlantic Canada to lobby the federal government for access to the $2.1 billion gateway fund.

The Atlantic Gateway is a trade initiative designed to dramatically increase the amount of container traffic flowing ports in Atlantic Canada. The strategy focuses primarily on ports in Nova Scotia, including Atlantic Canada’s largest port, the Port of Halifax, as well as a proposed expanded port facility in the Strait of Canso. The strategy envisions those ports offloading hundreds of thousands of 20-foot containers packed with consumer goods from Asia and the Indian subcontinent.

The goods would arrive in North America after travelling on container ships designed to rival the largest oil tankers in size. The ships are too large to travel through the Panama Canal and would instead travel from Asia via the Suez Canal and then across the Atlantic. Cargo from those vessels could be offloaded onto smaller ships, known as feeders or short-sea vessels, which could then take them to smaller ports in the region such as Saint John for transit via road or rail. The gateway’s benefits to Atlantic Canada include the direct jobs created in the transportation system.

The Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a non-profit independent think tank is a major backer of the Atlantic Gateway strategy. The institute has sponsored extensive research on the subject and on Atlantica, which is a regional trade bloc concept that encompasses both international and interregional trade and economic prosperity initiatives.

While the Atlantic Gateway is focused on increased container traffic and, to a lesser extent, other seaborne cargoes, Atlantica looks at issues such as regulations that limit labour mobility or increase costs for firms that do business in the Atlantic provinces and the northern New England states.

So far, while Nova Scotia Premier Rodney MacDonald has made the Atlantic Gateway a major focus, Premier Shawn Graham rarely mentions the initiative.

Pat Riley, of the International Longshoremen’s Association, said Tuesday New Brunswick should be advocating for a large portion of gateway funding and projects. According to Riley, who represents 300 workers at the Saint John port, Halifax is over-shadowing local interests. He wants to see Graham and federal politicians like Conservative minister Greg Thompson lobby harder on the province’s behalf.

“We think there is a strong case to be made for the port of Saint John and the province of New Brunswick “¦ There’s a very strong argument that (we) should receive the lion’s share of that funding,” he said of the need to upgrade pier and rail facilities.

“We’ve got some places to spend that funding right away.

“New Brunswick has to be dealt with fairly “_ we need our fair share of the gateway funding.”

Cirtwill said Graham’s relative silence on the gateway doesn’t mean he dismisses its potential for New Brunswick.

“I think he understands if we all try and get ‘our share’ of this pot, no one is going to get ‘their share’ or we’re going to end up with a bunch of small benefits spread around and we’ll never reach our full potential.”

Cirtwill said there is no pressing need for federal government money for port or transportation infrastructure in Atlantic Canada right now. As it stands, the port of Halifax handles roughly 500,000 containers a year and has the capacity to handle upwards of million containers without significant upgrades. Other ports in the region, including Saint John, which handles roughly 45,000 containers and could double its traffic with existing facilities, have room to grow.

“There’s no urgent need to expend massive amounts of capital on new infrastructure,” said Cirtwill.

However, some of the federal government money could be used to help promote Atlantic Canada as a prime place for international shipping lines to direct traffic bound for major Canadian cities and the larger U.S. market, he says

“If the federal government wanted to come and spend some money productively I think they could spend some money on marketing, on co-ordination, opening a few more business offices in the Indian subcontinent makes sense,” he said.

“I think opening up a few more offices in the U.S. Midwest and central Canada makes sense.”