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A port in a storm: politics, competing interests leave Port of Halifax future in limbo

A port in a storm: politics, competing interests leave Port of Halifax future in limbo

Last month, Canadian National Railway announced that it was bidding, alongside an unnamed partner, to buy and expand the Halterm Container Terminal in the Port of Halifax, with the aim of turning it into “the Prince Rupert of the East,” a nod to the company’s booming West Coast terminal business.

“What we’re trying to do here is catch some of these big vessels going into New York,” CN chief executive J.J. Ruest told the Financial Post at the time.

The Port of Halifax, currently Canada’s fourth largest by container traffic, is ideally positioned to do just that.

Halifax lies just off the great circle route from New York to Europe — “four hours in, four hours out” as retired Halifax Port Authority engineer Don Carter puts it — and is 635 nautical miles closer to the key shipping hub of Rotterdam than is its competitor. It is also in deep enough water to accommodate the world’s largest container ships.

But despite the CN bid, Halifax’s chances of becoming a bigger player in North America’s rapidly changing East Coast container business are not at all assured these days.

Other Atlantic ports have spent a fortune on upgrades — including US$1.6 billion to raise a bridge in New York to create clearance for the largest ships — while Halterm’s future has remained in limbo, largely due to politics and competing interests.

Located in the south end of the city at the harbour entrance, the terminal can currently handle only one ship at a time and needs a second berth to be competitive. It must also expand its terminal capacity to handle more containers.

The need for more capacity is something the Halifax Port Authority is well aware of, having warned on its on website that without berths for two ultra-large ships, the port could eventually lose a significant share of its business.

But a Halifax Master Plan commissioned by the Port Authority two years ago, which was meant to chart a course for the port’s future, has never been released.

The port also came out on the short end of a recent round of funding from the federal government’s National Trade Corridors Fund, which provides up to half the cost of projects deemed worthy. Although every major Canadian port received money from the fund, a Halifax Port Authority application for a $275-million Halterm expansion was rejected.

“This (funding) is based on merit. Where are the most urgent bottlenecks,” Transportation Minister Marc Garneau said recently, referring any questions about the reasons for the rejection to the Port Authority itself.