By Tom Peters

An idea to develop Detroit as an inland port and move international cargo from southeast Michigan over the port of Halifax is slowly gaining momentum, says Professor Michel Belzer, an economist and planner at Wayne State University.

Belzer and the group Great Lakes Global Freight Gateway, a not-for-profit effort led by a consortium with expertise in finance, business, industry and real estate, have been pushing the idea with the aim to boost the state’s economy. Belzer said when he first looked at “the intermodal opportunity in 2008, the economy was heading into the depths of a depression. It did not look good because people are too focused on the short run, but anyone with a long-run view could see the baked-in opportunity. I could find evidence for no more than 100,000 container lifts in southeast Michigan at that point. We now know that this has doubled or tripled, and is on a roll. We just need to build local capacity and create a plan to take advantage of the shift,” he said.

“My goal is to get us up to 400,000 TEUs a year from any source in two or three years,” Belzer said and he sees CN as a key element in the supply chain corridor. The Gateway group has projected this initiative will generate $11 billion in new economic activity and 150,000 new jobs.

The project has targeted Halifax because of its deep water facilities, CN rail connections between Detroit and U.S. Midwest and Halifax being one of very few ports on the East Coast that can handle the largest container ships. Much of the international cargo from southeast Michigan now “goes through less efficient corridors” and ports such as New York and New Jersey, Belzer said. “We understand Halifax wants to be a port for the Great Lakes, so Halifax is a critical hub through which things have to travel,” he added. He also believes Halifax would be more efficient and cost effective.

HPA spokesman Lane Farguson said the Port Authority “doesn’t speak about growth activities in specific segments” but said, “Port of Halifax is well-positioned to allow businesses to pursue new opportunities in 2014 and beyond.”

Belzer said “we are aiming to handle containers from everywhere.” Detroit is served by four Class I railroads and all are very busy, he said. “The traffic in Detroit is growing very fast simply because the automotive manufacturing industry is up 175 per cent after the crash of 2008.  So we have the industry to support growth of the inland port.”

CN’s Mark Hallman said the projected 400,000 TEU figure is speculative at this point, and he was not prepared to comment. However, he said “CN has ample capacity on its network to accommodate increased container traffic to and from Halifax.” In 2012 CN’s Halifax-Detroit traffic moved only 1,400 units but in 2013 Hallman said that is expected to increase by 30 per cent.

An increase of 400,000 TEUs annually would nearly double the number of TEUs that moved over Halifax in 2012 (416,572). The increased business would not strain port facilities as the Port has capacity to handle over two million TEUs.

“Frankly, I think that five years out, with proper development and marketing, we ought to be able to be far beyond our target with most of the significant growth coming through the Canadian corridors,” Belzer said.