By Alex Binkley

Ontario has quietly jettisoned a grand vision of a continental trade gateway to focus instead on a multimodal action plan to improve both the movement of its growing population and rising freight traffic in Southern Ontario. The ingredients for the action plan, directed by the Ontario Transportation Ministry, come from various sources including academic studies and reports from Hamilton-based Southern Ontario Gateway Council (SOGC) and the transportation task force of the Ontario Chamber of Commerce (OCC).

It is chaired by Bob Armstrong, President of the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transportation in North America and Board member of The St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation (SLSMC). The man who will be overseeing the final shape of the plan and its public presentation is Glen Murray, the former Winnipeg mayor and head of the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy, who was named Ontario Transportation Minister last month.

The Gateway Council (SOGC) was formed in 2005 during a period when the federal government and provinces of Ontario and Quebec hoped to emulate the economic success of the Pacific Gateway and Trade Corridor initiative. The Council has members from the rail, trucking, marine and aviation sectors as well as municipalities, shippers, industry associations, and the federal and provincial levels of government. Executive Director John Best said in an interview the Ontario government is attempting to implement the intermodal plan “as much as it can on its own or in co-operation with the federal government.” Attempts to develop an Ontario-Quebec Gateway have “reached a dead end,” he says. “It was too unwieldy to co-ordinate policy between three governments.” In addition, the 2008 recession limited funds available for further transportation infrastructure .

Ontario has to deal with a congested highway network, especially in the Southern part of the province, he notes. There’s no public appetite for building new routes so the government and its partners want to ensure they are getting the most out of the existing transportation network, he adds. That makes rail and especially the underutilized marine transport sector all the more important in moving freight. Armstrong says the OCC’s transportation task force is developing proposals to replace outdated policies and inadequate infrastructure, which “increase the cost of living, working and doing business in Ontario. The results include increased congestion and economic stagnation, as well as higher fuel consumption and air pollution. “Ontario’s transportation infrastructure requires major new investments and more supportive government policies to overcome existing constraints,” OCC’s vision statement adds.

“Transportation planning must facilitate the seamless flow of goods and people within and between regions, through a range of options from affordable and reliable public transit and inter-city travel, to state-of-the-art road, rail, port, and airport services constructed, operated, and maintained in partnership with the private sector,” it adds.

Best says the federal government has supported developments in the Port of Montreal and is underwriting the cost of a new Windsor-Detroit crossing, which “is a key component of the plan.” He notes SOGC participated in the successful campaign to convince Finance Minister Jim Flaherty to drop the 25-per-cent duty on imported ships for the Great Lakes. That effort, like most of what the Council does, was conducted by “working behind the scenes,” he points out. “We can accomplish a lot that way.”

Among the developments that should aid the marine sector is a project in Hamilton to upgrade the rail connections into the port. AcelorMittal Dofasco has used short sea shipping to ship raw steel across Lake Erie and move slab steel from Hamilton. The port is also becoming a shipping hub for agri-food products as well through its grain terminals and vegetable oil plant. Best thinks there is hope in the future for year round goods movement on Lake Ontario of bulk products and containers with some infrastructure fixes in Hamilton. While talk of short sea shipping as the next great development for the Seaway-Great Lakes has mooted for the last decade, Best says while its prospects have improved, “we’ve not quite the found economic argument for it.” However, the new ships and some of the innovations being developed by tug-barge operators could change that, he noted. One of the encouraging developments in recent years has been the growing interest in multimodal operations by the different transport sectors, he says. “They have a more mature approach to it than before when they saw it as stealing traffic from each other. Now they look at it as an effective way to deal with all the extra business.”

In its recent discussion paper Building Competitiveness – A proposed Multimodal Goods Movement Strategy for Ontario, SOGC called for transportation policy and infrastructure decisions “based on the needs of the shipper. Modal shift only occurs when the shipper sees the benefit, but nonetheless we need a system that provides the full gamut of shipping options to the shipper, as we face unknown energy costs and environmental challenges in the future.” Infrastructure investments benefit the entire population “by supporting overall economic growth and sustainability,” the paper explains. “There is a need to educate the public about the correlation between a robust multi-modal goods movement system and the overall health of an export economy like that of Ontario.” The Council is prepared to “to help create a sense of urgency in addressing the federal government.”

It also recommends “better metrics in assessing the importance of goods movement, and SOGC is currently discussing how our organization might be able to assist in coordinating or providing some of that data, (actual costs and impacts of delivery delays, for example). What we do know, however, without any further research, is that there is serious and unsustainable (highway) congestion … that adversely affects all modes and that there is no short or medium term action plan at present to address what has become the most serious problem facing the Ontario goods movement sector today. The goods movement sector, in partnership with government, must help develop a costed priority list of transportation initiatives, showing both costs and benefits that can be endorsed by all governments at the policy level, so we can all have some certainty in the process, one that is not affected by political cycles,” it points out.