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Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Does the Atlantic Gateway Really Exist?

In October of 2007 the federal Conservative government announced a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the Atlantic Provinces. The agreement was hailed as a landmark partnership that would allow for the creation of an Atlantic Gateway helping to ensure improved trade, economic growth and prosperity for the entire region.

The Atlantic Gateway Initiative, it was said, would allow for, “…leveraging our most important transportation systems to better connect Canada with the world”.

Four years later, how much do any of us know about what’s been done to make the Atlantic Gateway a reality and what economic benefits have we seen as a result of the initiative?

A few months after the agreement was signed, a handful of official announcements were made touting the importance of the MOU and boasting of a $2.1 billion national fund. It was said that a portion of that fund could be leveraged to finance partner projects as part of the Atlantic Gateway. The exact proportion of funds available in Atlantic Canada was not identified.

After the initial media blitz the Atlantic Gateway website reveals no further press releases or announcements for an extended period of time.

The next public statements out of Ottawa regarding the Atlantic Gateway don’t appear until February of 2011, more than two and a half years after the MOU was signed.

At that time, and for a few short weeks, releases again began to appear. These identified a hodgepodge of funding for small projects under the Atlantic Gateway banner, everything from small wharf improvements to airport lighting. The announced projects had a combined value of less than $50 million dollars, were spread across the four Atlantic Provinces and came in the 3 months leading up to the last federal election.

Since the election last May silence has once again descended on the Gateway.

The Atlantic Gateway site shows no comprehensive list of project funding and no accounting of the money spent. No identification of Gateway related policies or planning activities can be found there either. In fact the site provides little substance beyond the posting of the handful of intermittent political press releases previously identified.

Compare this with the official site for the Pacific Gateway, a similar program on the West Coast of Canada, which was initiated just 12 months prior to the Atlantic MOU being signed.

A visit to that site reveals a number of informational links on everything from federal investments to security activity, marine and air policies, environmental information and more. Visitors can even access an interactive map identifying exactly where and how much funding has been provided and what was accomplished with the dollars spent.

The map shows that nearly a billion dollars has been spent in Lower BC alone. That figure is in addition to more than $600 million allocated to other projects throughout the West, all tagged as part of the Pacific Gateway initiative.

Since the Atlantic Gateway, like its Pacific counterpart, is intended to boost trade by enhancing transportation infrastructure it might be expected that the Harper government would try to “brand” any and all federal funding for air, sea or ground transportation projects as part of the Atlantic Gateway Initiative. No doubt that tactic accounts for at least a portion of the funding identified out West but when compared to the low level of spending in the Atlantic region the numbers are no less staggering.

It would be easy to announce funding for bridge work, highways or even the new ferries for Marine Atlantic in Newfoundland and Labrador as a part of the initiative, even though they are all part of the normal activities of government. It’s exactly the sort of thing politicians are so efficient at doing but in this case they don’t even appear interested enough in the Atlantic Gateway concept to muddy the waters that way.

When it comes to the dollars specifically identified for Gateway initiatives in Canada it appears that the Atlantic Initiative has garnered only 3% of the funds spent on the Pacific coast, hardly indicative of a federal priority.

Granted Canada’s largest trading partner, the U.S. is easily accessible overland or through the Great Lakes. Granted as well, a high volume of trade between Canada and China is a valid reason to improve transport infrastructure in BC. That said, an enormous trade deal is about to be signed with the European Union. It seems rather short sighted that more emphasis has not been placed on ensuring Europe’s closest ports of call, in Atlantic Canada, are able to fully take advantage of that reality.

If the Atlantic Gateway Initiative is intended to improve transportation infrastructure for trade imports and exports the jury is still out on how effective it will be. If the intent is to promote a gateway for Atlantic Canadian workers to head west in search of employment the concept may be very effective.

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