The recent flurry around the future of the Port of Halifax says a lot about the state of public discourse in our city. The relevant facts have been entirely absent from the discussion. Some of them are:

  1. The port is operating at less than a third of capacity. Either one of the terminals could easily handle all of the traffic we have received in any year. The Fairview cove terminal had most of the traffic in 2011 including two thirds of the largest ships.
  2. Many ports suffered during the recent recession. But most continued to rebound last year while Halifax experienced another decline. It lost market share again as it has over the last decade.
  3. The bias in the container trade is for larger ships. The largest cannot get through the Panama Canal today, but when it is widened in 2014 they will be able to. This will considerably improve the competitiveness of southern US ports at the expense of those further north.
  4. Rail miles are more expensive than sea miles. So any carrier will be inclined to choose ports with the most sea miles and the fewest rail miles. Halifax is the first port of call for trans-Atlantic ships, making it the port with the most rail miles. In fact much of the traffic we receive today is from ships partly unloading so that they can get into the shallower ports of New York/New Jersey.
  5. Commute times into Halifax from Bedford, Sackville, and the South Shore are disgracefully long for a city our size and likely to get worse. Traffic out of the south end terminal includes 500 trucks a day clogging up Water Street. Meanwhile the rail cut is used once a day for container trains.

None of this is a criticism of the efforts of port workers and management, who have been energetic and creative in their efforts to maximize traffic.

Based on these facts, which are far from being a business case, I have advocated that a proper study be done of possible alternate uses of the port lands and the rail cut. It seems it is very unlikely that there will ever be enough traffic to justify having both terminals. A consolidated terminal, which would mean very little job loss if the same number of containers are being handled, might be better able to compete. Either terminal would be very valuable real estate if used for other purposes. The rail cut could be used with little amendment as a much faster way for buses and cars to get downtown, and as a viable bicycle corridor. Or for commuter rail.

There may be serious economic, environmental, or legal problems with any of these ideas. That is why a study is needed.

But the entire idea of having a thoughtful discussion has been precluded by Mayor Kelly’s hysterical piece published last week in which he argued that those advocating such a position were seeking to”destroy the port of Halifax”, and that mayoralty candidate Mike Savage must immediately declare a position on the topic because of the views of some of his supporters.

It is extremely unlikely that the many diverse Mike Savage supporters all have the same opinions on the future of the port. But few of them would object to a thoughtful fact-based discussion of the topic.

Mayor Kelly’s polarizing style is neither thoughtful nor helpful. Haligonians should look forward with enthusiasm to his retirement.