Sunday, January 24, 2010

RIP Port of Halifax?

If some figures on the Halifax political scene (elected and unelected) have their way, this may be the biggest container ship that will be seen in Halifax. It is their contention that the lands occupied by the Halterm Container Terminal, the grain elevator and the CN rail yards in the southend of the peninsula are too valuable to be wasted on port activities.
They claim that traffic congestion, caused by trucks carrying containers, is a bane on the downtown and should be eliminated. It is their opinion that the railway cut, which allows trains to get down to the south end port facilities (and to the VIA rail station) would be much better used for commuter traffic.
Their conclusion is that with the port eliminated from the south end of Halifax, then there could be development, which would include housing, thus increasing the density of the peninsula by some 15,000 people.

There are problems with their arguments:

1. If you think traffic is bad with container trucks- try adding 15,000 people and their 10,000 cars to the south end! What is the problem they are trying to solve?
2. Taking publicly held land (owned by the people of Canada, through the Halifax Port Authority) and handing it to private developers to enrich themselves, seems unattractive to this taxpayer.

3. The Halterm Container Terminal is presently able to handle very large ships. Unlike the Fairview Cove terminal, where the above ship, OOCL Hong Kong is headed, there are no height restrictions at Halterm. Ships wishing to enter Bedford Basin, for Fairview, must pass beneath two bridges, and are limited to about 150 feet air draft. So in fact their scheme would emasculate the port.
They claim that the world's largest container ships will never call here anyway, and that is so, but if we had port facilities in the right location they could come. Without capable facilities we are giving it away.

4. The port is one of the economic engines of Halifax. So the world economy is down right now, and will take years to come back. The proponents seem to think that other economic engines can replace the port, but their ideas are very vague. Service industries must have an employed population to serve. We can't survive taking each other's washing!

5. The grain elevators, deepwater piers and the Halterm container terminal are the heart of the port. Yes they are under utilized at present, BUT ONCE GONE THEY WILL NEVER BE REPLACED. No one is realistically suggesting an alternative location in the port of Halifax for replacement facilities. Unless the developers are prepared to pay for relocation, it will never be done. If developers were forced to pay for the real cost of replacing these facilities, the land costs would be too high to provide affordable housing. We do not need more housing for the wealthy.

6. If you move to the country should you complain that farms smell? If you live in Halifax should you complain about the port? I don't believe these people are big thinkers- I think they are misinformed. But since they have somehow attracted the ears of the people, they may prove to be extraordinarily dangerous.

7. If you get rid of the port, why not get rid of the refinery too - it really stinks! Oh and while you are at it, toss the shipyard out and the power plant and the navy-that should really help.

Let's have some realistic debate from informed people and lets have the Port of Halifax step up to the plate.
Over the history of Halifax the "Port Authority" or its predecessors has often been the weak link. Subject to political manipulation, they cannot speak out. Not paying taxes like regular landowners also weakens them. Their job is to run the port, but who has the vision?

The current locally governed corporation should have the vision. But do they? Their current activity seems to be concentrated on developing the core of their lands for non port activity, and attracting cruise ships. This of course puts therm totally at odds with private property owners, developers and even the Halifax Regional Municipality(HRM) and the Province of Nova Scotia. To be fair there isn't much they can do about attracting shipping business in this economy., and they are showing results. But is an art college, a farmer's market, a convention centre and a movie studio the best use of the port land? I fear that these developments are signalling to the world that shipping activities in the port are secondary.

The Future of the Port
What we really need now is real work on the future of the whole port. Not just the south end port lands, but all port and waterfront land. HRM By Design missed the boat on this, failing to realize that the port is the real heart of Halifax. The HRM has a lot to answer for. It hired out of town consultants from far inland who had no clue about ports.

The misguided efforts of the Waterfront Development Corporation, which has already put publicly acquired lands in the hands of private developers and condo owners, should not be let off the hook.

Canada Lands, the federal land disposal agency, has also played this game, and so we now have grocery stores and coffee franchises on once publicly held land.

The Power Corporation , which had a power plant on the waterfront, is developing their new corporate HQ in the old building while their operating power plant at the other end of the harbour continues to add to our carbon footprint daily. Will they want to import natural gas directly to their plant - you bet! Won't that cause a lovely reaction-right where the great Halifax explosion occurred-imagine the PR job they will need to do.

Halifax Shipyard is very constrained by its location- it cannot build the big ships needed by the Coast Guard and Navy-that work will go elsewhere, perhaps even offshore.

We really need to look at the big picture. We need to take this thing by the horns and really deal with it holistically- not piecemeal.

Oh and by the way if the sea level rises a couple of feet all those newly acquired lands will be underwater at high tide anyway.

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