Solving Halifax’s Port-Related Truck Problem?

Editor’s Note: Given that the mayor of our municipality has spent much of his time in office — and thousands of public dollars — promoting a Port of Sydney container terminal, the Spectator feels all Nova Scotia port news is of interest to its readers. So when Halifax-based reporter Rick Grant got in touch with a story about plans to relieve container port-generated truck traffic in Halifax, it jumped at it.

 

Halifax has a problem Sydney and Melford can only dream of: too many port-related container trucks in the downtown, trying the patience of people living and working along the truck route.

But a $100 million dollar remedy announced at the beginning of June is not attracting universal praise. Port users are unhappy, details are skimpy, the city has no plans at this point to force truckers off the streets and political hopefuls smell opportunity in those diesel fumes.

 

Gate view, Halterm Container Terminal, 7:51 AM, 26 June 2019. (Source: Halterm Container Terminal)

 

Liberal solution

Every day, about 500 huge trucks hauling containers rattle and bang through Halifax’s narrow, old streets, past apartment buildings, condos, office towers, government buildings, hotels and restaurants on their way to and from Halterm Container Terminal in the South End of the city.

On Sunday, June 2, a group of Liberals announced a solution to the truck problem.

Federal Transport Minister Marc Garneau promised to chip in $47.5 million for two projects (total cost: nearly $100 million) which all present claimed would take most of the port-destined trucks off city streets and ease traffic problems in the North End.

Standing next to Garneau during the announcement were Halifax Liberal MP Andy Fillmore, Nova Scotia Minister of Labor and Advanced Education Labi Kousoulis, Halifax Mayor Mike Savage (the former Liberal MP for Dartmouth) and Liberal-appointed Port President Karen Oldfield.

From left to right: Transport Minister Marc Garneau, Halifax MP Andy Fillmore, NS Labor & Advanced Education Minister Labi Kousoulis, Halifax Port Authority President Karen Oldfield, Halifax Mayor Mike Savage. (Photo by Rick Grant)

Political hopefuls, as you might imagine, are a wee bit skeptical of the proposed solution and have seized on the issue to challenge Fillmore as the October 2019 election campaign shifts into second gear.

Bruce Holland, the Conservative candidate for the federal riding of Halifax, who attended the announcement told me, “They didn’t do anything for four years and now on the eve of an election they’re trying to look like their doing something.”

Green Party Candidate Jo-Ann Roberts (who was not at the announcement) wasn’t quite as cynical, saying, “I hope it’s a legitimate commitment. I question the timing.” Nevertheless she added that she is “not upset with it.” As a member of the Green Party, she said, “I do want to see more rail.”

The NDP Candidate for Halifax, Christine Saulnier did not respond to requests for comment.

 

Rail cut

The solution announced by the Oldfield, Garneau and company centers around a section of the CN rail line that runs from Halterm Container Terminal in the city’s South End to the North End, very near the Ceres Container Terminal.

It’s what is known as “the rail cut.”

About 100 years ago, long before either terminal existed, a 10-kilometer rail corridor was carved out of the rock running the full length of the Halifax peninsula. It’s the beginning of CN’s Transcontinental railway and it almost links the two terminals.

CN Rail Cut. (Photo by Rick Grant)

There is currently one set of rails in “the cut.” The plan is to install a second set, connect the two terminals, acquire four cranes to load and unload trucks and railcars somewhere near the Ceres terminal in the North End and have a local rail shuttle take containers to and from Halterm.

Sounds good — but as CN President Jean-Jacques Ruest cautioned back in December:

You have to remember that there’s a cost to that and the cost will be borne by the user.

Although CN Chairman Robert Pace attended the June political event, CN did not participate in the announcement outlining the additional rail service in its rail cut corridor.

Halterm CEO Kim Holtermand, who also attended the announcement, said he didn’t know how much the shuttle service would add to the cost of handling a container. Asked if he’d been consulted on the project, he replied that he had but it had been “minimal.”

International Longshoremen’s Association President Kevin Piper said the rail cut should be paved. He said truckers could then share it with trains and that way there would be a one-time only cost of building a road bed, as opposed to the ongoing costs of handling containers two additional times.

 

Sharing the cut

That option — having trains and trucks share the rail cut — has been raised several times over the past few decades.

In February 2009, Nova Scotia’s Progressive Conservative government received the loftily titled: “Integrated Transportation Corridor, Phase 1 Feasibility Study” (“integrated transportation corridor” being a long-winded way of saying “rail cut”). After 50 pages of technical detail, public opinion and cost and risk analysis related to expanding the rail cut to accommodate both trains and trucks, the authors concluded there were two key “showstopper” risk factors:

  • There is a lack of political will at the HRM level.
  • There is a change in political will at the Provincial level.

Ten years and two provincial governments (NDP then Liberal) later, no action has been taken.

But four months before a federal election, the political will has apparently materialized.

On Monday of this week, the Halifax Port Authority (HPA) released the results of a public consultation done by the Hill and Knowlton PR firm. Just over 2,100 people (in two groups) responded to all the survey questions. (The Port Authority had actually received the results of the consultation in May, before Garneau’s announcement.)

Choicebook Report 2019

Respondents were not asked how they felt about paving the rail cut  — the two options they were given were the shuttle service and an intermodal yard outside of the city (perhaps in Trenton, outside of New Glasgow.)

According to Conservative candidate Bruce Holland, “they formed the questions so they got the answers they want.”

Green candidate Jo-Ann Roberts said, “I wouldn’t call it a survey that didn’t have a point of view.”

Moreover, said Holland, the plan announced in June is “not going to alleviate the problems, you’ll still have the reefer [refrigerated trailer] trucks.” And others.

Oldfield said the plan will take 75% of port-related truck traffic off the streets but not refrigerated containers because, she said, they must be handled directly by Halterm. She also explained that there will always be last-minute deliveries to Halterm. All in, that would leave about 125 port-destined trucks rattling through downtown each day.

Refrigerated container deliveries to Halterm would be exempt, although Halifax Port Authority spokesman, Lane Farguson said, “There maybe a fee charged for non-reefer trucks accessing the terminal.” All those using the CN shuttle service would pay costs that would be passed on to shipping lines and their customers. No price has yet been set for that nor the fee that Farguson mentioned.

However, it’s not just costs that concern Holland and Roberts. They say they’ve been told that handling containers two additional times will also create delays in getting the boxes to Halterm to meet shipping schedules.

All of it — costs and delays — impact truckers, Halterm, the shipping lines and the longshoremen.

 

Few details

But there’s another factor: it seems that the city has, as yet, no plans to force truckers to use the rail shuttle service. When Shaune MacKinlay, Mayor Mike Savage’s chief of staff, was asked if the city planned to pass a by-law (with enforcement and fines) forcing truckers to use the shuttle service, she replied by text:

That I don’t know. We have not contemplated a by-law at this time. I can’t speak for the port.

And then there’s the lack of detail in the plan itself.

Map of the Halifax Peninsula with the Ceres and Halterm container terminals highlighted in yellow.

Map of the Halifax Peninsula with the Ceres and Halterm container terminals highlighted in yellow.

Garneau said there could be “shovels in the ground” by 2020 but also that the project could take until 2024 to complete — another five years and a second federal election away.

When asked where, near Ceres, the truck marshaling, cranes and shuttle will operate from, HPA spokesman, Farguson wasn’t able to say and explained that design is the next step and “operating details are being worked out.”

Garneau’s promise is for a specific amount of money to go to the two projects announced based on applications from the Halifax Port Authority and Halifax Regional Municipality.

Although the Halifax Port Authority requested a large chunk of cash for cranes, rail, and other expenses, it could not give specific costs for the four cranes or provide an overall budget for its project — in fact, there were no hard details for either the HPA project or the the HRM’s Windsor Street Exchange redesign.

Said Farguson: “It’s too early right now to talk budget or cost.”

But even if it does take years for that plan (or another one) to become reality, the current truck route along Hollis and Water Streets is about to fall silent for a year, if not longer.

This fall, around the same time as the federal election, the Cogswell Street Interchange, which the trucks use to enter and exit the city’s downtown, is scheduled to be demolished. The trucks will be re-routed to areas that have never enjoyed (read: suffered) the experience of 50 or more tractor trailers an hour rolling by.

If nothing else, it will create a new constituency of people interested in a solution to Halifax’s truck problem. 

 

 

Rick Grantl

 

 

Longtime CTV reporter Rick Grant began his television journalism here on the Island. He is now based in Halifax.