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Halifax, Sydney and Melford are jockeying for position to attract Suez Canal traffic. An inside look at their ambitious plans


An embarrassment of riches is what some might call having three super post Panamax vessel-capable container terminals in Nova Scotia. If the new port developments in Sydney and Melford play out as planned, they will join the Port of Halifax in laying claim to being the closest North American mainland ports to the Suez Canal and a day and a half sailing time closer than Norfolk, to which these ports are regularly compared.

The Sydport container terminal project, under the guidance of the Cape Breton Regional Municipality (CBRM), and the Maher Melford Terminal project, driven by Melford International Terminal Inc., have made a lot of progress. Land acquisition, dredging and equity commitments are among them.

The Port of Halifax, which has had container terminals for decades, is not sitting on its laurels, however. It has invested $147 million in improvements over the past five years. They include 400 new reefer plugs, sub-station upgrades, a truck marshaling area, new crane rails for post-Panamax cranes and dredging.

This January the Port of Halifax announced a $35-million project at the South End Container Terminal. Deepening the berth to 16 metres and making the pier longer and wider will allow it to simultaneously berth and service two full-sized post-Panamax vessels. “This project ensures that Halifax continues to be able to handle any size ships with operational flexibility,” says Michele Peveril, senior manager, strategic relations, Halifax Port Authority. “The Port of Halifax has two super post Panamax ready container terminals with four super post Panamax berths. We can accommodate the largest container ships afloat.”

Melford

Despite the challenges and delays during the recession following the US-caused global financial meltdown, Melford International Terminal Inc. is making steady progress toward its goal of building a 1.5-million TEU container terminal in Melford. Located on the western shore of Nova Scotia’s Canso Strait, it will be able to accommodate any vessel afloat or planned.

Maher Terminals has signed on to operate the terminal. Financing for land acquisition and construction is in place, says Richie Mann, vice president of marketing, Maher Melford Terminal Inc. “We have enough equity commitment in place to finance the $350-million project for the two-berth Phase 1, 315-acre container terminal, the first 250 acres of logistics park and the required rail spur line. We hope to see shovels in the ground this year and Phase 1 completed in a couple of years.”

The recession delayed landing contracts committing cargo to the terminal, but Melford may have turned that corner. “We are in deep and serious negotiations to secure cargo commitments and we are doing our due diligence. This is likely the only project milestone to overcome,” Mann says.

Last fall Melford took its investment commitments to the Nova Scotia government and said it was ready to finalise the purchase of the land required for Phase 1.

Phase 1 includes infilling with aggregate to creating 60 acres of land where there is now water. “All of the aggregate we require to give us 60 feet of dock depth is on site. This is one of the reasons why the terminal construction cost is low by terminal construction standards,” Mann explains.

Work is also underway acquiring land from property owners for the 20-mile rail corridor between the terminal site and the Cape Breton & Central Nova Scotia Railway (CBNS). “We have had surveyors and land acquisition people out dealing with this. We expect that will be completed before long,” Mann says.

Mann is heartened by Gennese & Wyoming’s purchase last October of Rail America, whose railroads included the 245-mile long CBNS. “We are very encouraged by G&Y. They have been here. They have an excellent reputation with CN. The huge benefit to us is that the line between Melford and CN does not require substantial upgrading.”

The terminal has been designed as a pure rail terminal, so there are no significant road infrastructure issues, Mann says. “Very few containers will be trucked. The terminal is already on a truck road. We would be responsible for intersecting existing trunk roads – building a loop road at our cost. The Nova Scotia and federal governments have both indicated they will do highway upgrades, but our traffic studies and the volume of trucks anticipated indicate that the highway does not require upgrading to a different class of highway.”

Asked about the CBRM container terminal project, Mann offers a few comparisons: “Sydney makes no mention of operational partners or carrier partners. It is difficult to assess the project. Also, substantial upgrading of the rail line [out of Sydney] is required. I know how long it’s taken us to get here. We are quite comfortable. Our site has a tremendous amount of credibility. Plus, we are a lot larger, and have 15,000 acres in reserve.”

A lot of that credibility, Mann says, comes from the partnership with Maher and its performance at its Fairview Terminal in Prince Rupert, British Columbia. “We intend to use the same operational model as in Prince Rupert. We have a 36-hour sailing time advantage over Norfolk. We can have cargo to the US Midwest even before a ship gets to Norfolk.”

Sydport

The CBRM is building its container terminal on a 350-acre green field site it owns in Sydney harbor. A $40-million dredging project, completed in February 2012, added 150 acres to top up the site to 500 acres. CBRM reports that the channel can now accommodate the largest vessels in the world. The cost of Phase 1 of the development, with two berths and 1.25 million TEU capacity, is pegged at $400 million.

The site has all the federal, provincial, local, environmental and building permits required to proceed to building a container facility. “The permitting is to the point where the project is deemed by the financial community as a viable project,” says Edward M.A. Zimny, principal at P.F. Richardson Associates, Inc., Holmdel, New Jersey. His firm has provided advisory services from the project’s beginning, and has participated in the master planning, negotiating, discussing and due diligence.

Phase 1 construction would begin after an agreement is reached with a concessionaire, according to Zimny. “We are working with CBRM with finalizing an expression of interest. We are speaking with operators, financiers and ocean carriers. Any combination of these could operate the terminal. It is about to enter the final stage of negotiating a financial transaction,” Zimny says.

Although work was well underway last year on twinning Highway 125 from the exit at Kings Road to the intersection with the Sydney-Glace Bay highway, the port plan does not envision moving many containers by truck. Most containers will be moved either by rail or will be transferred to smaller vessels destined for ports along the eastern seaboard.

The CBNS rail line extends into Sydney, but some rail infrastructure will be required on the terminal site. CBRM does report that improvements are required on some sections of the Sydney subdivision of the CBNS line east of the Canso Causeway. Zimny notes, “Some people point out that a tremendous amount of [rail] work is required, but the line is already used weekly. It is functional. CBNS has the capacity to offer the service, but it needs some deferred maintenance. In relative terms it is minor, compared to the [cost of] the build out at Melford.”

As for tying in the terminal with the rail line, there are several possible configurations, Zimny says. “It could have single or parallel track, depending on the type of operation. Conceptual plans have up to five or 10 rail sidings supplying 10,000-foot trains. It all depends on what the operators require or want.”

It is no small question whether Melford or Sydport has the edge. Mann cites t
he partnership with Maher Terminals and the lower development cost, thanks to water deep enough that there is no need for dredging. He also notes that the project has an additional 1,500 acres adjacent to the property under its control.

Zimny thinks Sydney’s existing rail infrastructure is a plus, compared to the cost of linking CBNS to the Melford terminal. Comparing Sydport to Halifax, Zimny comments, “Rail-wise, Halifax is constrained, relative to Sydport, because Halifax is a centre-city operation. A centre-city operation costs more money. It is also about velocity, getting cargo in and out efficiently. We envision Sydport being more reliable than the other offerings.”

The Port of Halifax argues that its investments are part of the Halifax Port Authority’s long-term strategy for maintaining the port’s competitiveness in cargo – its core business.

Zimny’s argument that cargo transshipped at Sydport could be at a US port before a ship going directly to a US port arrives appears equally applicable to Melford and Halifax. So does the argument that ships coming into a Nova Scotia port can take cargo down the coast without violating the Jones Act. This gives all three NS ports an edge over foreign ships entering US ports that might hope to move cargo to another US destination.

“Do I think all three ports can come on line immediately? No,” Zimny comments. But Canada has a bright future with its proximity to the Suez Canal.”


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