By Keith Norbury

LamSar Inc. of Sarnia, Ontario, makes enormous pieces of equipment. One project currently underway involves constructing 84 modules for nearby Nova Chemicals’ new polyethylene plant. The largest of those modules measures 120 feet long, 50 feet wide, and 68 feet high, said LamSar co-owner Dave Hill. Fortunately, Nova Chemicals is only about three kilometres away from the LamSar yard where that module is being built.

“Part of the deal here in the township where our plant is located is to permanently bury the power lines that run the arteries between us and the site,” Hill said. “So the sky’s the limit.” Moving large cargos from LamSar’s facilities to the Sarnia waterfront for shipment overseas isn’t nearly so easy at present. It involves temporarily raising utility lines, which can add considerably to the shipping costs — if those obstacles can even be moved.

“We have to forgo a lot of bids,” Mr. Hill said. “If we can’t physically get to a customer via our roads in town, we’re stuck making components that we have to assemble on site, which increases the cost of construction.”

A solution to that problem is in the works. Work is scheduled to begin this fall on a $12 million oversized load corridor for the Sarnia-Lambton region that would create 26.7 kilometres of obstruction-free routes connecting fabricators to the Port of Sarnia. “Our corridor is designed for a load that’s 30 feet wide, 30 feet high and 150 feet, tip to tip,” said Lyle Johnson, the oversize corridor project manager. The corridor is a joint venture of the City of Sarnia, the County of Lambton, St. Clair Township, and the Sarnia Lambton Industrial Alliance. The latter consists of about 35 manufacturers and fabricators, including LamSar, as well companies providing support services to those industries. “The city has taken accountability for execution of the project,” Mr. Johnson said.

The partners have committed $6 million to the venture, with $4.7 million from Sarnia, $1.2 million from Lambton, $75,000 from St. Clair, and $10,000 from the industrial alliance. Another $225,000 was previously raised from the partners, and the province of Ontario, to study the proposal. This August, Transport Canada announced a $6 million contribution from the National Trade Corridors Fund, with the bulk of that going toward improvements to the dock on the Sarnia waterfront.

The corridor project consists of three elements, Mr. Johnson said. The first is permanently raising or burying utility lines — such as for electrical, cable, and telephone — along the routes. The second element involves widening intersections to allow “swept” paths for long loads to turn, as well as upgrading or replacing culverts. And the third element is upgrading the dock at Sarnia harbour, which is on the St. Clair River between Lake Huron and Lake Erie. “There’s a deep water port with a dock at the harbour now, but it has restrictions and you can’t get really close to the ships,” Mr. Johnson said. “And you can’t do roll-on, roll-off without a lot of difficulty.”

During the first two years of the corridor project, most of the work will be on the road networks. Work on the dock will come last. “Until we had the National Trade Corridors Fund funding, we really couldn’t move forward with the dock,” Mr. Johnson said, estimating that permitting for the dock, including environmental assessments, will take 12 to 18 months. “So that puts us into mid year 2020, 2021 before we’re going to hit the field.”

Having worked for about 30 years with Nova Chemicals in engineering and project management, Mr. Johnson is all too familiar with the limitations of the existing infrastructure. “I’ve paid for a lot of these loads through various expansion projects,” he said.

Moving a large module from a fabricator to the harbour can cost “anywhere from $50,000 to $250,000, depending on the size and length of the load,” Mr. Johnson said. That additional cost can make it impossible for local contractors to compete in highly competitive markets. A backgrounder on the corridor project outlines what kind of money is at stake. Each module costs from $250,000 to $1.5 million to build, with half that cost in direct high-skilled labour.

A 2016 business case study by consultants CPCS estimated the corridor project would, over 30 years, create 2,613 full-time jobs, add $263 million in gross domestic product, and generate tax revenues of $21.4 million (in 2010 Canadian dollar). “It’s going to open up the region,” said Mr. Hill, whose company is part of the industrial alliance.

For LamSar, which has an office in the United Arab Emirates, the corridor will help position it as a supplier to the petrochemical industries in that region. “This will give us a definite leg up when it comes to being able to fabricate locally in the Sarnia-Lambton region, and deliver to dockside without it being debilitating in costs,” Mr. Hill added.

The corridor project won’t just help big fabricators like LamSar, which has 300 to 400 employees, but also smaller companies that support those industries. “We like to view this project as an economic development project versus an infrastructure project,” said Rick Perdeaux, Chairman of the Sarnia Lambton Industrial Alliance. He owns Toolrite Engineering, which has three machine shops in the Sarnia area. Toolright doesn’t make the modules but it manufactures parts, such as reciprocating equipment, that go into those massive builds. “It’s an active time right now within our community,” Mr. Perdeaux said. “And I’m very happy to see the forward progress that’s being made.”

The region’s petrochemical and associated manufacturing industries support 5,530 direct jobs, and industries serving the manufacturers support 3,468 direct jobs, according to an oversize load corridor handout. “In this area there are enough fabricators and enough employees that are going to potentially benefit in a big way when this project is finished in a couple of years’ time,” Mr. Hill predicted.

The corridor will enable fabricators to use their technical expertise to exploit other global markets, in addition to the petrochemical space, Mr. Johnson said. “We need to maintain that cluster through the downturns in the petrochemical valley,” he said. “So if this can help them maintain a solid base of skilled labour, then that helps the entire area.”

However, the corridor project will only reduce some of the obstacles to accessing lucrative Alberta petrochemical markets. Ships and barges would be able to move modules to Thunder Bay but once there, they would encounter hundreds of kilometres of overhead restrictions and other pinch points between the port and the open spaces of the Prairies. “Back in 2010 when things were booming in Alberta, we had oil exploration companies and so on coming to us saying that, ‘Hey, we would love you guys be able to supply us.” And we said, “Great,” recalled David Moody, project leader for business growth service at the Sarnia-Lambton Economic Partnership. “But they said, We’ve got a problem: The equipment’s too big to get through that bottleneck from about Thunder Bay to Winnipeg.”

The CPCS report points out that Alberta’s high-load corridor accommodates loads of up 29.5 feet high, and that Saskatchewan in recent years has greatly improved its corridor and in some cases exceeds Alberta’s specifications. But Manitoba hasn’t made any such improvements and “also employs a slightly different bridge modelling arrangement than most of the other provinces, so determining optimum axle configurations can be challenging for superloads.”

Even shipping through Duluth, Minnesota, involves limits of 20 feet high and 24 feet wide as well as “political risks and potential for environmental blockades.” For such reasons, Mr. Moody and others, including Mr. Hill and Mr. Perdeaux, would support efforts to build a wide-load corridor from Thunder Bay west to the Prairies. “If somebody could champion that, I think that would open up the east to the west,” Mr. Hill said. “That’s been something we’ve been harping on, bouncing around with the local government here for a long time.”

Mr. Perdeaux said he absolutely supports such a corridor and is hopeful that the work the partners put into the Sarnia corridor project will inspire Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation to act. He said he has met several times with ministry officials who were “shocked” at how much effort had gone into the Sarnia proposal. “And they actually had said if they start to do it, they would probably model their plan going forward as to how we’ve approached ours,” Mr. Perdeaux said. “So, it’s a very big project to bite off, but I would certainly say there’s room for that to be happening in the future.”

The new Sarnia corridor won’t enable easy movement modules as mammoth as the 68-feet-high behemoth Lamsar is building for Nova Chemical’s new polyethylene plant. Moving those will require the use of SPMTs, or self-propelled motorized transporters, multi-axel machines that can turn in any direction. “We’re putting four of those together,” Mr. Hill said. “And then we’ve put some temporary shipping beams in the structures because these were not designed to be built off-site.”

Mammoet Canada Eastern is among the companies that supplies SPMTs for such moves. Mammoet was also “very supportive and a valuable resource” for the oversized load corridor shipping route study done by MIG Engineering of Sarnia.