From the bridge on Young Avenue, the Port of Halifax looks impressive. It has plenty of docks jutting into the world’s deepest natural harbour, ready to welcome even the most gigantic container ships. There are tall red and white cranes to unload the colourful stacks of containers like Lego blocks, and trucks and trains to whisk the containers away. Dozens of train tracks reach toward the water, the wide end of a cargo-moving funnel that quickly tapers into two tracks heading out of town through the railway cut, bound for points west---which is to say pretty much anywhere in North America. Premier Rodney MacDonald was flogging the Atlantic Gateway idea again last week, talking about turning Halifax into a prime destination for international shipping, and from the bridge you can almost believe it. From any other view, however, the Gateway dream is less a political vision than a mirage.
RodMac has been pushing the Gateway thing for a while, but last week at a Chamber of Commerce breakfast he got specific, unveiling a $300 million laundry list of projects. Included on the list is building a highway beside the train tracks in that rail cut leading from the Port of Halifax, which RodMac says is an environmentally friendly move, even though it encourages driving over more-efficient trains. He’d like to dredge Sydney Harbour, presumably so it can better compete against Halifax. And he sees a Gateway Logistics Park sprouting up near Burnside, where containers could be repacked and people could learn shipping skills at the “Logistics Centre of Excellence.” (A transportation school in the city that can’t even figure out a public bus to the airport? Very droll, Mr. Premier.)
The justification for all this spending is that global trade is undergoing a transformation, and Nova Scotia is uniquely positioned to benefit. Videos at theatlanticgateway.ca explain it more or less like this: Americans buy such prodigious quantities of shit from Asian sweatshops that there’s a container-ship traffic jam. The shortest distance from China to the consumers in the US is east across the Pacific, but so many boats come over that North America’s west coast ports can’t quickly handle them all. And because the ships are getting built larger, to carry more containers per load, they’ve grown too big to get through the Panama Canal and reach east coast ports.
The solution is to head west from the sweatshops, through the Suez Canal, past Europe, and then across the Atlantic. By that route, China and India are closer to Nova Scotian ports than to any others on the North American east coast, and if we act quickly to build an efficient Atlantic Gateway, it could be the main port of call for all those boats. “Canada must grab more international business before our competitors do,” says RodMac in his video.
Unfortunately there’s a problem with this plan. No, it’s not rising fuel prices, which threaten to make the endless supply of cheap junk from Asia more expensive. It’s not America’s fast-tanking economy, which might make shoppers reconsider their junk needs. And it’s not the sinister social side of the Gateway and the associated Atlantica trade zone, which encourages sweatshop standards for Nova Scotian workers to keep costs attractive for shipping companies. Yes, these are big problems. But the practical, undebatable Atlantic Gateway deal-breaker is that those competitors of ours are not fucking frozen in carbonite.
Up and down the west coast, ports are investing serious money to increase capacity. As for the Panama Canal, Panama is spending over five billion dollars to widen it. RodMac’s plans are piddling make-work projects begging for someone to pay the bills. In Panama, construction on the expanded canal actually started in September, and it will be open to bigger ships by 2015. The Atlantic Gateway is not even close to reality, and its time is already running out.