By Leo Ryan, AJOT

Opportunities are beckoning for Canadian ports to play a special role as ‘a facilitator of US trade’ with anticipated revived capacity crunches at US maritime gateways on the horizon in the not-too-distant future. Such a positive outlook, however, hinges on a more aggressive expansion of transportation infrastructure.

This was one of the key messages delivered to participants at the recent AGM and Annual Conference of the Association of Canadian Port Authorities (ACPA), held in Oshawa, Ontario.

The Canadian container ports of Vancouver, Montreal and Halifax are handling increasing volumes of cargo originating especially from the US Midwest. The remote Port of Prince Rupert, in northern British Columbia, will be entering this market in the fall of 2007 through a large container terminal project involving CN railway and New Jersey-based Maher Terminals.

At the conference, Stephen Poloz, Senior VP and chief economist of Canada’s Export Development Corporation (EDC), compared the tremendous investments being made in Asian ports in response to demand with what he regarded as the catch-up mode of US transportation infrastructure.

‘Over the next five years alone,’ he said, ‘port capacity in Asia is slated to double.

‘But in the United States, a lot of investments (since 9/11) are being funneled into security rather than capacity. This is like throwing sand into the wheels.’

Mary Anderson, president of the Canadian Association of Importers and Exporters, known as IE Canada, noted that Canadian ports and railways have invested billions of dollars in modernizing terminals with new container and bulk-handling equipment, upgrading mainlines and acquiring hundreds of new locomotives and thousands of freight cars.

‘Yet with all the investment,’ Anderson affirmed, ‘many in the business fear Canada’s transportation system is treading water instead of pulling ahead. Governments have recognized the problem through a number of initiatives such as the Pacific Gateway Strategy which, while promising, has yet to produce a lot of concrete actions. Similar developments are being worked on for Halifax, the St. Lawrence River and southern Ontario.’

A leading Canadian bank has estimated the transportation infrastructure capacity gap in Canada to be as high as $150 billion.

In this connection, McGill University professor Dr. Saeed Mirza warned that the deficit could well exceed $1 trillion within sixty years unless government authorities meet the challenge. ‘If infrastructure deteriorates, it has to be controlled deterioration.’

Deferred maintenance, he stressed, leads to increased operating costs, the shortening of a facility’s life cycle, and a waste of natural and financial resources.

With a tripling of container throughput forecast for 2020 (from the current level of 1.8 million teus), the Port of Vancouver has earmarked investments of more than $1.5 billion. Capacity at Canada’s largest port has recently been increased at the Vanterm and Centerm terminals in the inner harbor.

Construction of a planned second container terminal at Deltaport, situated at Roberts Bank, 25 miles south of Vancouver, however, has been delayed due to extended environmental impact studies. Capt. Gordon Houston, President and CEO of the Vancouver Port Authority, admits to being greatly frustrated by ‘the absolute distortion of realities’ by a Delta lobby group called APE (Against Port Expansion) as well as by the attitude of some of the local communities towards the port’s needs for more land for its future development.

Infrastructure-financing issue

Meanwhile, infrastructure-financing remains a hot issue that Canadian ports hope will be addressed by the federal Conservative government when it tackles amendments, perhaps late this Fall, to the Canada Marine Act (CMA).

‘The ability of CPA’s (Canadian Port Authorities) to borrow funds ought to be based on commercial banking tests, not set by way of bureaucratic regulation,’ stated a recent ACPA letter to Transport Mi