Canadian ports recorded a traffic increase or held their own during 2011, while keeping busy with multi-million dollar construction projects, facility expansions and upgrades to enable them to handle more business in the future.

This past year saw an uptick in Port Authority fortunes with increases in cargo volumes across the system, with several pro­­ducing records,” notes Gary LeRoux, Executive Director for the Association of Canadian Port Authorities (ACPA). “Saint John posted an all-time record for cargo, and Saint John and Halifax set records for cruise ship passengers.

“Port Metro Vancouver notched an all-time record in container traffic while Montreal had double-digit growth as well,” he added in an interview. “Sept-Îles had its best performance in 90 years and is preparing for double-digit growth in iron ore annually during the next five years. Hamilton bounced back in volumes as well, with Parrish and Heimbecker and McAsphalt mak­ing key investments.”

While 12 of the Port Authorities were successful in recent years at securing federal stimulus funding for their projects, they face a looming roadblock: the expiration of federal gateway funding, Mr. LeRoux elaborated. Under federal law, Port Authorities are limited in what they can borrow, which makes them more dependent on federal support than other transportation sectors.

Meanwhile, the pressure for them to expand is growing, as Canada has embarked on a wide range of free trade negotiations including the Canada-Europe and the Trans Pacific Partnership talks. As agreements come to fruition, Canada’s imports and exports will rise and Canadian ports must have the facilities in place to handle the increased traffic, he pointed out.

“Across the board, most, if not all, the Canadian Port Authorities (CPAs) have realized the need to expand, given the federal government’s continued march toward signing more free trade agreements to further diversify from the American market,” he noted. Port expansion projects are important to the local and regional economies as well as industries shipping or importing goods. “Any money a port makes is plowed back into its operations.”

By itself, that’s not enough to fulfil all the requirements, he observed. This is why the ports keep reminding federal politicians and officials about the need for a funding mechanism to replace the expiring program.

“Federal ports operate as agents of the crown. They’re tools of government policy. When they were set up, their borrowing ability and funding was limited and their assets were old.”

Ports have performed well in spite of these constraints, Mr. LeRoux says, but they still face a hefty bill for updating and expanding their operations. “To do that, they need to know what funding mechanism is going to be available going forward to facilitate their infrastructure development.”

ACPA has gathered enough data about the status of port infrastructure to fill a 120-page report to the government. “To get as far as they have, ports have partnered with investors who can bring dollars to the table and worked with federal programs,” he observed.

Mr. LeRoux can rattle off statistics about the economic importance of Canada’s ports – 460 million tonnes of cargo worth $162 billion handled annually; 250,000 direct and indirect jobs; $10.2 billion in salaries; $30 billion added to Canada’s GDP; $2.2 billion paid in federal and provincial income taxes; and $2 billion paid in other taxes.

In addition to the stimulus support, the government has allowed Vancouver, Montreal and Halifax to establish credit ratings to improve their borrowing ability.

The importance of improved infrastructure will likely be driven home with the opening of the expanded Panama Canal in 2014, he predicts. American East Coast ports have spent billions of dollars preparing to handle the larger ships that will be able to sail through the new waterway.

Port Metro Vancouver, Canada’s top port, handled 122.5 million tonnes of cargo last year, up 3.4 per cent from 2010. Container and resource traffic were especially strong. “What we have seen in 2011 is resilience in the Canadian export market; as international economies continue to face many difficult challenges, Canada’s natural resource sectors stand as a cornerstone of the Canadian economy,” said Robin Silvester, President and CEO of Port Metro Vancouver.

The Port saw key sectors such as autos and breakbulk cargo take a hit in 2011, although both sectors recovered later in the year and appear poised for a stronger 2012 performance. Container traffic matched the record pace of 2010 including a 6 per cent hike in exports. Cruise numbers were up 15 per cent.

Port of Montreal saw a 10.1 per cent growth in business to a record level of 28.5 million tonnes compared to 2010. Its liquid bulk business was 32 per cent higher, while container shipments increased by 3.6 per cent to 12.5 million tonnes.

This year the Port is projecting an increase of about 3 to 4 per cent for container traffic and an increase of about 2 per cent in liquid bulk shipments, noted spokesman Yves Gilson.

On the expansion side, the Port is proceeding with environmental, technical and economic studies for the development of the Contrecoeur site, downriver from the current port facilities. It is also working on projects to optimize the use of its existing infrastructure.

Port of Halifax treaded water in 2011 and expects 2012 to be just as uncertain. Overall port tonnage for 2011 was down by 0.3 per cent compared to 2010, with container shipments dropping 5.3 per cent in 2011. That came after containerized cargo recovered strongly in 2010 with 26 per cent year-over-year growth before the decline set in last summer.

Breakbulk cargo fell by 11.1 per cent while bulk cargo grew by 3.1 per cent and roll-on/roll-off cargo declined by 1.3 per cent. Weather problems caused a five-ship dip in cruise traffic to 122 visits compared to 2010.

Spokeswoman Michele Peveril says, “Over the last five years, the private sector invested more than $250 million in port-related infrastructure,” she notes. Halifax Port Authority invested $147 million during the same period. The South End Container Terminal is being expanded to handle two post-Panamax ships at the same time. The ro/ro and breakbulk facilities are also being upgraded.

Last year was special for Port of Sept-Îles, and 2012 got off to a great start with the announcement that a $220-million project to expand iron ore shipments would proceed. In 2011, the port recorded its highest volume of activity in 30 years, with 25.9 million tonnes, compared to 25.1 million tonnes in 2010.

With the opening of new mines in Quebec and Labrador, the Port Authority is building a $220-million multi-user, deepwater dock to transload ore delivered by rail into ships. The federal government is contributing $55 million to the project.

The dock “will ensure the start-up of major new iron ore mines in Quebec and Labrador, the expected impacts of which will be key, with nearly 3,000 new jobs and more than $10 billion in investments,” said Pierre Gagnon, President and CEO of the Port Authority.

The dock will be equipped with two ship loaders, as well as two conveyor lines, he said. It should be complete by March 31, 2014, and create 1,200 jobs.

Prince Rupert saw an 18 per cent increase in freight traffic over 2010 to 19.3 million tonnes compared to 16.4 million tonnes in 2010, but cruise ship and ferry trips dropped 3 per cent.

Port spokesman Michael Gurney said the Port is working on two key projects. The $90-million Road Rail Utility Corridor slated for construction on Ridley Island will support future terminal developments on the 1,000-acre site. The Fairview Container Terminal expansion, currently in its environmental permitting phase and pending a commercial decision to proceed by terminal operator Maher Terminals, would expand the container facility by 15 acres. It would include a second ship berth, which could be ready in 24-to-36 months after construction starts. The proposed expansion would add capacity of about 1.2 million TEUs, to bring the Fairview terminal’s capacity to over 2 million TEUs.

Quebec Port Authority posted a record of 29 million tonnes of cargo, up 18 per cent over 2010. St. Lawrence Stevedoring, IMTT-Quebec Inc., Béton Provincial and Ultramar all posted unprecedented results, says Mario Girard, President and CEO of Quebec Port Authority.

While Port of Quebec is a key transshipment centre for freight coming from, or destined to, the Great Lakes, it is also looking for opportunities in the mining projects projected in the Quebec government’s Plan Nord.

Cruise traffic dropped 20 per cent from the record season of 2010, but Mr. Girard remains optimistic about the future of international cruises and expects the port to welcome at least as many passengers as in 2010. The Port plans on continuing the work started in 2011 to take advantage of business opportunities while it improves and refurbishes certain facilities. “In total, close to $50 million will be invested in different projects at Port of Quebec this year. From a financial point of view, this is probably the largest series of investments related to harbour assets since the construction of the Beauport sector in the sixties,” concluded Mr. Girard.

Port of Saint John handled 31.01 million tonnes of cargo in 2011, compared to 30.45 million tonnes in 2010. Liquid bulk and container shipments were ahead, but dry bulk declined.

Saint John Port Authority spokeswoman Paula Small says work on a $14-million project to expand berthing capacity for cruise liners will continue this year. Meanwhile, the $30-million expansion of American Iron & Metal operations on the west side of the port will be in full swing this year. The company wants to establish metal shredding operations at the port. The project is “a critical component to the continued diversification of port business,” Jim Quinn, President and CEO of Saint John Port Authority, said.

Traffic in 2011 at Port of Trois-Rivières reached 3.3 million tonnes, a 12 per cent increase over 2010 and the first time it surpassed 3 million tonnes since 1980, noted Gaétan Boivin, President and CEO.

In 2011, grain traffic increased by 16 per cent while other dry bulk products increased by 8 per cent. The liquid bulk sector decreased by 6 per cent in 2011 to 320,000 tonnes while the general cargo sector doubled to 280,000 tonnes in 2011. The number of ships that visited the port reached 242 compared to 216 in 2010.

Mr. Boivin noted the Port’s On Course for 2020 program to improve handling equipment, storage facilities, employee training and environmental protection. Phase I of the modernization plan required investments of $23.2 million by governments, the Port Authority and the private sector.

Belledune Port Authority just about equalled during 2011 its 2010 performance of $2.7 million in net profits and cargo tonnage of close to 2.2 million tonnes, says Jenna MacDonald, Director of Marketing. “If all the inquiries we’ve had this year come to fruition, both for overseas and domestic shipments, we would have a good year. Everything is all over the map.”