Prolonged Uncertainty Would Be a Killer for the Port of Halifax

Halifax Liberal MP Andy Fillmore’s October 17th column on the future of the Port of Halifax has stimulated a lot of debate.

The difficulty is that he is grappling with the wrong questions.

Fillmore asks whether the southern waterfront is the best site to continue investing in Halterm.

The right question is whether governments want Halifax to continue to be a first-class port for container ships. If they do, then Halterm should either stay where it is or be moved across the harbour to the land formerly occupied by the Imperial Oil refinery.

Moving all the work to Fairview is not an option because the ever-larger ships carrying containers will no longer fit under the bridges.

Moving across the harbour is only viable if there is enough water depth. It would cost something well north of $500 million. The land freed up by moving Halterm would have considerable value, although still a small fraction of that relocation cost. In any event most of the value from land sales would accrue to CN, which owns the rail yards.

All three levels of government should be involved in this question, but since the matter is fundamentally one of urban development, it is clear that Halifax Regional Municipality should take the lead.

Fillmore asks how the Cogswell redevelopment and downtown Halifax will accommodate hundreds of container trucks per day if Halterm stays put. Implicit in that is the assumption that there are no alternatives. There are.

The rail bed from Halterm to Bedford once accommodated two tracks. As advocated by John Risley and others, the unused railbed could accommodate a paved surface wide enough for one-way truck traffic.

Risley argues that the trucks are no wider than the trains that used to pass each other when there were two tracks. Perhaps vehicles confined to rails need less margin for error.

Regardless, a schedule for reversing direction would have to be worked out. If inbound traffic times included 6:30 AM to 9 AM, and outbound included 3:30 PM to 6:00 PM perhaps access could also be granted to the fast buses which are Halifax’s most successful transit service for people not living near the ferries.

Relocating the Via Rail terminal to Mumford Road or Bedford would facilitate utilization of the paved lane.

Another alternative to trucks clogging downtown streets is a shuttle service for containers to a more easily accessed loading location.

Filmore asks how the city should go about making its decision, and answers by advocating a years long process comparable to that used in the HRM by Design Downtown Halifax Plan.

That plan has been a great success, but it was answering questions about how Halifax’s downtown should be developed, not whether. Fillmore notes that the process took several years.

The port deals with global businesses in shipping, terminal operation, and railways. They make capital commitments that need a long time horizon to be viable.

No decisions benefitting Halifax as a port will be made while uncertainty hangs over its fate. Over several years a series of long-term decisions in favour of other ports would occur and would leave Halifax in a permanently disadvantaged position.

Fillmore is not just another citizen contributing an op-ed. He is the government’s Member of Parliament for Halifax. It would be surprising if he did not consult with caucus and cabinet colleagues when composing his text. It would be astonishing if that text has not already caught the attention of the major players in the industry.

The issue having been raised by Halifax’s Member of Parliament, it must be promptly addressed. Halifax City Council should declare whether it wants Halifax to continue as a first class port for container ships, and if so whether the city is open to considering a relocation.

Whichever direction is chosen, MP Fillmore should urge Ottawa to signal that it will be a supportive partner, in the same way that it has been for the ports of Montreal and Vancouver.

That context having been provided, an engagement process like that used for HRM by Design would be an excellent way to explore how to go about Cogswell redevelopment.