By Tom Peters

Port of Halifax is developing a new master plan that will be its road map for years to come as it prepares for the next generation of container ships and other critical aspects of the port’s overall development. “We are looking 10 to 15 years down the road, maybe longer. It really depends on what comes out of the plan,” said Paul MacIsaac, Senior Vice-President, Halifax Port Authority (HPA).

The Port began the process well over year ago and after some preliminary assessment of port assets, engaged WSP /Parsons Brinckerhoff, a global firm offering specialized services in project delivery and strategic consulting, to lead the process.

Although larger ships are a significant aspect of the plan, consultants will also consider large scale industrial mega projects, the increasing size of cruise ships, and how the Halifax Seaport District can complement the urban growth and revitalization currently underway in downtown Halifax and Dartmouth.

MacIsaaac said the consulting firm’s first task was to “validate our thoughts with regards to volume projections over the next 5 to 20 years to see if they were in agreement with us, and if we were at a point where we really should continue to invest in infrastructure to be ready for the changes happening in the industry, and there have been quite a few changes in the past couple years with respect to ships getting larger.”

“The other big change, which I don’t think anybody really foresaw, was the change in alliances and consolidation of shipping lines and the efficiencies they are trying to achieve through capacity sharing agreements and larger ships. So, in order to address that, we felt we had to continue to invest in infrastructure so that was really behind the master plan,” he said.

There has been a buzz around the port for several months that the Port Authority was looking to build a mega container terminal on the Dartmouth side of Halifax Harbour. But MacIsaac was quick to point out that a new terminal in Dartmouth is just one of several options available.

“The primary objective of the first phase of the master plan is to ready the port with the ability to simultaneously service two ultra class ships (13,500 TEUs and over),” he said. The port can presently handle the largest ships afloat, but only one at a time, at its southend terminal, operated by Halterm. It has the water depth and no air gap restrictions. But the Fairview Cove terminal, operated by Ceres, has constraints with ships getting too large (high) to go under the Macdonald and MacKay bridges.

In order to change that scenario, the bridges would have to be raised substantially “and anything can be done with enough time and money. But based on feedback we have received, we’ve looked with more depth at other options. Two major options were to invest in our current assets at Halterm and we looked to see where we could build a bigger terminal. There was nothing on the Halifax side (land) so the other option was Dartmouth,” he said.

“So the mandate we gave the master planners wasn’t to look at one option or the other but was really to look at a blank page and come back with what might be feasible and not to be constrained by land ownership and that sort of thing because we really didn’t want to narrow their focus. We wanted them to look broadly and if there was a compelling case to build a new terminal somewhere, then we would follow that path and if there was not a compelling case we would follow a different path,” he said. MacIsaac said it is important to remember “this is simply not our plan. We have to really be cognizant of how port assets operate within the city and the region.”

If there is a decision made to do something different at Halterm “we have to look at the long term impact on land side connections,” whether it be by truck or rail, he said. The master planners have come up with various concepts that are being evaluated. An inland terminal is a possibility and various uses of the rail cut that now serves the port. “But nothing has been determined,” MacIsaac said.

There have also been recent discussion within the port community of a merger between Halterm and Ceres. However, a merger wouldn’t necessarily mean all container operations would go to one terminal.

“It is conceivable we would build in Dartmouth and run all container operations over there. It is unlikely we would run container operations out of both sides of the harbour but that is still to be determined. If we build out Halterm further, it is conceivable we could consolidate at Halterm or continue to use Fairview for ships that could still transit under the bridges. All those things are on the table,” he said.

MacIsaac anticipates the larger ships will start arriving on the East Coast when the raising of the Bayonne Bridge, in the Port of New York and New Jersey, is complete. “We used to be in a secure place here given our bridges were higher than the Bayonne, but the bridge there is going to be higher than ours to about 65 metres and we are at the 50-to-51 metre range. So that will mean all terminals in New York and New Jersey will be able to handle the largest ships and we think that will make a change on East Coast deployments. We think it is important that we be ready for that, and we think we will start to see those ships in the 2018-2019 range,” he said.

During the process so far there has been consultation with the public and all the key stakeholders and port users. “We are a significant economic generator within the city and region, and we need partners to do this and to ensure that the logistics supply chain works well. In that regard I have nothing but positive things to say, our key partners like the two term operators and CN have been very helpful working through this process with us,” he said. The city, province and federal officials have also been involved. “We have also tried to make it clear to public the economic impact of the port, That’s a substantial piece of the economy,” MacIsaac said.

The Port Authority hopes to get some initial feedback from consultants by the end of the first quarter 2017. MacIsaac said the process of this magnitude, once consultants are engaged, takes 12 to 24 months.