REGINA, Sask. –Things are heating up on the prairies when it comes to intermodal transportation hubs, and that could mean many jobs and opportunities over the next few years.
Winnipeg’s Centreport, which we reported on briefly last summer, is being joined -and perhaps led somewhat -by Saskatchewan’s Global Transportation Hub. Each of the inland ports has a different focus and both are working to become important focal points for Canada’s transportation infrastructure, connecting the country with markets here, in the US and around the world.
But is there room for two major intermodal hubs in the west?
As it turns out, backers of both projects think there is, and neither thinks they’re in true competition with each other.
“If you think about this in terms of the gateway concept,” says John Law, president and CEO of Saskatchewan’s Global Transportation Hub Authority, “there’s probably room to provide these kinds of services in more than one jurisdiction in western Canada, depending on where people are wanting to go and where they’re coming from.”
Diane Gray, president and CEO of Centreport, agrees. “I wouldn’t even call it a competition,” she says. “I think (Saskatchewan) has a focus that involves using CP Rail and building a logistics hub around that, and Centreport includes a very busy cargo airport with the most dedicated cargo freighter flights a day.”
This “there’s room for everyone” mindset may be good news for Alberta, where “Port Alberta” in the Edmonton area has been under development. Port Alberta, however, doesn’t appear to be as advanced as the other two projects.
Ken Mamczasz, executive director of Port Alberta, says they’re busy working on the initiative and have done quite a bit of work over the past year, but it appears the project is still mostly on the drawing board.
“We have commissioned some significant market research and are moving forward with our industry involvement strategy,” he said in an e-mail.
Port Alberta’s Steering Committee had been led by government representatives and economic development agencies, Mamczasz says, but “now that we have some research and a serious value proposition for Port Alberta, we are asking industry members to get involved and help set up a new Board and create a new legal not-for-profit corporation called Port Alberta.”
Meanwhile, Centreport and the Global Transportation Hub are well underway.
According to Law, Saskatchewan’s project came as a logical outgrowth of a new provincial transportation strategy.
“We wanted to understand better not just how to manage our road network and the connections we make by air or by rail,” he says, “but to focus more on overall economic development and how the transportation system serves the economy.”
Law says that Saskatchewan is arguably the most trade-dependent provincial jurisdiction in the country, with about 70% of its gross domestic product based on exports and that, despite having had a “nice run here economically for the last while,” their research led them to change how they viewed the province’s transportation system and the type of investments it needed going forward.
“It became apparent that there were some really interesting things happening that we hadn’t really perhaps paid as close attention to as we might have,” Law says. One was that Saskatchewan’s road network, built primarily during the 1950s and 60s, had sections that couldn’t handle the increase in commercial truck traffic over the past decade, nor were parts of the existing infrastructure taking new realities into account.
“Our economy changed quite dramatically and there were significant shifts in some trade movements,” says Law.
These included major oil and gas developments, new intensive livestock operations, a burgeoning mining industry in the north (Law says it grew by a factor of 10 over a two-year period), and expanded forestry. All of this was putting strains on a road system that, Law says, includes some highways built from gravel and dirt roads that had been merely paved over, without being engineered to carry heavy truck weights.
“Some of our roads were getting beat up really badly,” Law says, “because there was all sorts of new commercial truck activity taking place. We had some gaps to fill in.”
Law says Saskatchewan’s research also discovered that it was mostly north-south traffic that was showing huge increases, while east-west truck traffic was virtually static.
Eventually, Law says, it became clear that if the province was going to support its economy, it had to not only get its products moved more efficiently inside the province, but to connect up better to the national and international supply chains as well. Canada has “a sailing advantage over the US ports,” he says, “but if you have problems getting through the Rockies in the winter or there are congestion points at the port or labour disruptions or whatever, all that gets factored into (shippers’) determination about the best way to move product.”
As it turns out, Law says, at the same time Saskatchewan was mulling its future over, Ottawa was developing an Asia-Pacific Gateway concept to modernize the transportation system from the west coast ports through the prairies and into the markets in the midwestern and northeastern United States and southwestern Ontario. Not only that, but “We learned that CP Rail was looking at their own system and concluded that if they couldn’t contribute to a more efficient operation at their intermodal facility in Regina, then they’d probably have to do something different someplace else.”
Such mutual needs and confluences of events are where marriages -or at least partnerships -are born, and that’s what happened.
“We determined that if we partnered up (with CP) and made an approach to the federal government,” Law says, “we might qualify for some of the infrastructure funding that was being made available to help enhance the transportation system.”
CP has since become an anchor tenant at the Global Transportation Hub, a 2,000-acre parcel of land annexed by the city of Regina about three miles west of the Highway 1 and Lewvan Drive interchange. The railroad is taking up residence on some 300 of those acres which, when compared to their current 40-acre site, should give them plenty of elbow room for the foreseeable future.
“I think they’ve got the capacity to about quadruple the number of lifts in terms of the container movements in and out of their facility there,” Law says.
Another anchor tenant is Loblaws, which is building a massive facility on about 100 acres, with room for, according to Law, “about 765 truck bays.”
That still leaves room for plenty more tenants, and the Hub folk aren’t only looking for clients who want to set up large-scale facilities like the two anchors are.
“We think we’ll see a lot more small-to medium-sized operations,” Laws says, estimating that most sites will probably fall in the 30-to 70-acre size. “It depends on who you’re talking about and the nature of their business.”
Having the two anchor tenants onboard helped generate interest from other parties, Law says. “We’re in active negotiations with three or four other very serious parties about locating at the site,” he notes, though none had signed on the dotted line as of publication date.
Infrastructure to support the Hub includes a $170-million west bypass connecting Highways 1 and 11. “This was always on the books,” Law admits. “But when Loblaws said they’d probably be running 1,400 Super-Bs and maybe triple tandems in and out of here a week, we realized we also had to think about how to manage the flow of traffic in and around the city from an efficiency and a public safety perspective.”
And while the bypass has been the biggest piece of infrastructure work so far, Law says the Ministry of Highways and Infrastructure has a 10-year build-out plan which is intended to serve almost like a collection and distribution system, not just for the Hub, Law says, “but to effectively c
onnect up all of the important economic corridors in the province.”
There’s also thought being given to looking at a more direct connection to the US.
“That will be driven almost exclusively by the traffic volumes,” says Law. “And if the Hub generates a lot more activity of the sort we saw when we got the Loblaws commitment, it might happen sooner than we think.”
Centreport, meanwhile, is focused currently on “building its assets,” according to Gray, and they’re looking not only to the west coast ports for business but to the north as well, through the port of Churchill.
Churchill isn’t open all year, but Manitoba Trucking Association general manager Bob Dolyniuk says it’s open more now than it used to be -so much so that “when Steve Ashton was Highways and Transportation Minister, he went over to London to talk to Lloyds and see if they would extend the insurable shipping season through Churchill because of this climate change issue.”
Ashton’s pleas apparently fell on deaf ears, so the Churchill shipping season still, Dolyniuk says, boils down to “the ship owners being able to get insurance to come in there.”
The availability of Churchill notwithstanding, there are still plenty of transportation fish for Winnipeg to fry. The city is also the gateway to the east, including the port of Thunder Bay, and Gray points out it’s also the northern hub of the midcontinent transportation corridor.
Gray says the Centreport concept began in earnest with the release of a Mayor’s Trade Council report in March 2008, which had seen business leaders asked how Winnipeg could participate more in global trade movement and what investments would be required to help facilitate that expanded role.
“The report made a number of recommendations including the need to invest more significantly in infrastructure that connects into trade corridors and gateways,” Gray says.
Gary Doer, Manitoba’s Premier at the time, then led a community-wide effort to “turn the concept into something tangible,” Gray says. Diverse parties such as the City of Winnipeg, Chambers of Commerce, the trucking association, and the Airports Authority were brought aboard the project, leading to the creation of a private sector corporation whose board of directors included the heads of Bison Transport and Paine Transportation.
Right now, Gray says, they’re finalizing their first business plan and working with governments on servicing the land, the land-use plan and a master plan for zoning. As for a completion date, Gray says that’s in the eye of the beholder.
“Completion to some people could mean we have an office established,” she says. “We’re operational. We’re working with developers and the first investments will be announced this summer.”
Work is also continuing on Centreport Canada Way, a $212.5-million, four-lane divided expressway the federal and provincial governments are funding and which Gray says is opening up Winnipeg’s northwest quadrant. The route also provides trucks with access to the Perimeter Highway connecting to the Trans-Canada and Highway 75 to the Emerson border crossing.
There’s also a new terminal, expected to be open this fall, being built at Winnipeg’s airport. Though the $600-million facility is meant primarily for passengers, Gray stresses that the airport itself is “the busiest in Canada when it comes to being a cargo jet hub.” Not only that, she says, but Canada Post has built its western Canadian facility there as well, “so that has connections into what we’re building.”
Manitoba’s famous flooding could be thought of as a potential fly in the ointment, but Gray doesn’t see that as a major issue. “Everyone has their eye on that particular ball,” she says, noting that there are other routes to the south, just east of Winnipeg, and that the “border crossings are open and the commercial traffic continues to flow, so it’s not a case of there being no alternative.”
And it isn’t as if nothing’s being done to help ensure the major four-lane highway to the border doesn’t float away in the future.
“They’re looking at either a bypass or a diversion of water to take the flooding away from the highway,” Gray says. “They’ve got a number of options that they’re studying.” Back on the outskirts of Regina, meanwhile, things are moving along. “We’re in the very early days out there,” says Law, “But you can’t miss it.”
Phase One of the Loblaws operation, which Law expects to be operational by this summer, was started about 14 months ago. It’s a 400,000 sq.-ft. facility that’s “big enough to see from quite a distance away on our flat prairie.”
Loblaws’ initial phase is a distribution centre for its fresh and frozen food operations. The remainder of its million square feet facilities, Law says, is “primarily dry goods, clothing, electronics -the stuff that they’re competing with the Wal-Marts of the world.” Law estimates it’ll take another 18 months to get that phase finished.
As for the rest of the Global Transportation Hub, Law says they’ve started working on the roads, and the water and sewer pipes are going in. CP still operates from its downtown location, Law says, waiting for the required approvals to be vetted through the Canadian Transportation Agency and he estimates that, if things go well, construction will be underway on its new digs “towards the end of the current construction season.”
Law figures both CP and Loblaws will be fully operational sometime in 2012.
Law says one of the distinguishing characteristics of the Saskatchewan initiative is that it was born out of the requirements of its private sector partners.
“We thought it would be appropriate to look for the right site and that sort of thing but it was really the private sector that drove the initiative,” he says. “A lot of people are thinking differently about our province’s economy and this Hub is one of the tangible initiatives that has people interested in investing here.”
They’re also working with potential tenants on everything from permitting and zoning to service provision and the solving of construction issues. “That facilitation role has been one that we have received a lot of very positive feedback for,” Law says. “It’s really a one-stop shopping thing.”
Law says they’ve also had interest “expressed” by a few trucking and transportation companies “because of the nature of the hub’s focus” and he expects there’ll be some announcements in that area in the near future.
Intermodal hubs such as the Global Transportation Hub, Centreport and, eventually, Port Alberta, should not only offer convenience and efficiency for the movers of goods across Canada and to the world, they also stand to be good job creators. Law says that potential was one of the things that motivated them to get the project going in the first place.
“Loblaws,” he cites as an example, “should require up to 1,500 new incremental jobs just to service and operate their new facility. That’s a lot of new jobs for the region.”
The choice for companies interested in locating at any of these new facilities may end up being made more interesting because they’ll be faced with a cornucopia of riches. “I think a lot will depend to a large extent on individual business requirements,” Law says. “That certainly has been our experience so far.”
‘A lot of people are thinking differently about our province’s economy and this hub is one of the tangible initiatives that has people thinking of investing here.’
John Law, Saskatchewan’s Global Transportation Hub Authority