By Alex Binkley

Free trade deals completed and under negotiation have brought the vital role of the country’s main ports into focus, says Wendy Zatylny, President of the Association of Canadian Port Authorities. If the 18 ports that handle the bulk of Canada’s exports are to efficiently handle increased imports and exports generated by the trade deals with South Korea, Europe and elsewhere, they need to upgrade and expand their facilities, she says in an interview. “With 90 per cent of everything we buy and sell travelling by ship, maritime trade underpins the global economy,” she points out. “These are the goods we depend on every day –cars, tools, electronics, resources, food, and medicines –to name just a few.” ACPA ports handle about $162 billion worth of freight every year.

Working with Transport Canada, ACPA has identified $5.3 billion worth of current and future port infrastructure improvements that are needed, she notes. About two-thirds of the money would be for new developments and the rest for rehabilitation of existing infrastructure.

While the Building Canada fund has helped Montreal and Vancouver with construction projects, other coastal and Great Lakes ports have plans on the drawing boards that will require funding assistance. Port of Montreal will receive $43.7 million through the Building Canada Fund to expand container capacity, deepen vessel berths, and improve truck traffic flow in and around the port. Meanwhile Port Metro Vancouver has wrapped up nine infrastructure projects worth nearly $450 million, to stabilize port container trucking operations and facilitate the efficient and reliable movement of goods through the gateway. Port Saint John is seeking $205 million from the Building Canada Fund to modernize its container infrastructure over the next seven years, and Port of Hamilton “has a lot of projects in the works,” she continued.

“The government has been very open to working with us,” Zatylny says. The challenge remains to convince Ottawa to join an intensified partnership to support additional port projects. They’re needed “to ensure our infrastructure is able to accommodate increasing trade demands and that our supply chains operate as smoothly and efficiently as possible. They can see how innovative the ports have been in developing new markets and services.”

Zatylny has been presenting the case for the Ports before Parliamentary committees, in briefs on federal budget priorities and in newspaper columns. “The time is now to pair Canada’s 21st century trade agenda with 21st century transportation efficiencies.” A World Bank study has ranked Canada 14th out of 155 countries in terms of the quality and efficiency of its logistics infrastructure. She says Canada’s goal should be to break into the top 10 in terms of supply chain efficiency.

Few port projects are large enough to qualify for the $100 million private-public partnership category. Getting government contributions for smaller projects through the Building Canada fund can be a time-consuming process. Zatylny says the Ports hope the fund will continue “to have flexibility in criteria related to the total value of projects and expand the funding options available to Ports by establishing a dedicated, repayable low-interest fund that Ports could draw upon enabling them to attract partner funding more readily.”

There are several other measures that ACPA would like to the government adopt as part of a partnership with the ports, she elaborates. One would be for the Trade Commissioner Service “to develop a training program for trade commissioners, helping them better understand the value-add that is the National Port System.” As well, the Association would like to see a federal Inter-Departmental Working Group created to deal with other bureaucratic issues that Ports have to grapple with, she says. It could work on removing barriers to financial flexibility for Ports, resolve various regulatory issues that hamper them, and facilitate short-sea shipping by obtaining exemptions and dealing with other issues under the Coasting Trade Act. The Ports would also like to see additional investment in and support for the Great Lakes-Seaway system.

Elaborating on the infrastructure funding issue, Zatylny told the Commons Finance Committee that infrastructure projects “take a few years to get off the ground. But having the notion or the guarantee that there will be federal funding would really help get an infrastructure project put together and would help the Port Authority continue to bring together the patchwork of funding partners that are required to fund a big project. While Port Authorities are adept at creating multi-partner funding models, federal funding is nonetheless a critical component in ensuring many projects of strategic national importance are able to proceed,” she added. “While the Building Canada Fund was helpful, there still exists a gap to be filled.”

The Association has supported amendments to the Canada Marine Act because they will “enable Canada Port Authorities to more effectively manage the potential acquisition of lands that support and fuel continued port growth,” she noted. As well, the federal government will be able to allow Ports to follow provincial environmental and safety regulations, which will further clarify the status of the Ports. “As Ports develop certain projects, particularly around natural resource extraction, there is the potential for health and safety and environmental protection requirements that are provincial responsibilities that currently would not apply to a federal entity such as the Port Authority,” she said.

At the same time, the federal government needs “to address issues of how quickly Port Authorities can have their letters patent amended so that they can acquire additional lands in a commercial timeframe, rather than a slower process. Sometimes it takes up to two years to get letters patent amended such that a Port can acquire lands.” Some ports are nearing capacity and if any surges in business occur, then the port can face faces bottlenecks and delays, she pointed out. U.S. West Coast port disruptions have sent additional container traffic to Vancouver and Prince Rupert. “Those ports are already very busy, and the added volume is creating challenges in handling the cargo efficiently. By virtue of those ports already nearing capacity, they are starting to have difficulty handling the extra load,” she added.

During the last 15 years, Canada’s overseas trade has grown by 80 per cent, she said. Meanwhile, the United States has remained Canada’s largest trading partner, but the value of that bilateral trade has remained essentially the same. The growth in overseas trade may be tempered in the short term by the world’s economic uncertainties, but that’s no reason not to prepare for busier times.