By Tina Costanza

A $205-million West Side Modernization Project at Port Saint John in Saint John, New Brunswick, will boost shipping opportunities that will have positive impacts on the economy at the local, provincial and national levels.

In partnership with the Government of Canada and the Province of New Brunswick, the project will result in infrastructure upgrades at the port’s west side terminal. These upgrades include a longer, stronger pier, a deeper berth and both wider and deeper channel that will ensure prosperity for the port and the region in the years to come.

A terminal upgrade is needed to accommodate larger vessels and provide the proper handling capability to service modern fleets.

“I started here in 2010 and shortly after arriving we carried out an underwater survey of the port to see what the condition was,” says Jim Quinn, CEO, Port Saint John. “When you look at a port, what you see above the water is great, but in a tidal port you have to wonder what the infrastructure looks like underneath.”

That work revealed a definite timeline with respect to major concerns that would be associated with some of the terminals. Then there was the factor of establishing the strategic direction for growth at Port Saint John.

“With the advent of the Canadian Port Authority system in 1999, port authorities became independent business enterprises, outside of the traditional government department model— port infrastructure is our product, and we need the right infrastructure to support and attract business and grow revenue to once again re-invest in infrastructure,” Quinn explains. “That was one of the driving factors for the modernization project.”

Port Saint John is active in all cargo sectors. The container sector, in particular, was one in which the port had reached a kind of a steady state, says Quinn.

“I bought it forward to my board and explained that if we were going to stay active in containers we would have to realize the ships are growing in both size and draft. We needed to have infrastructure to accommodate the changing dynamics of the world’s container fleet and the changing dynamics of container trade, for example, consolidation of the shipping lines was a factor even then. For this reason, we agreed we needed to modernize our container terminal and we also needed to keep in mind our multi-faceted approach to our other sectors we have to ensure diversity in our cargo mix.”

Mapping out the work

The modernization marks the largest project the port has undertaken in decades. It took two years of planning and putting business cases and conceptual designs together, two years of lobbying government partners, and then a couple of more years of a detailed design, to reach the stage where tenders could be issued and contactors could be put in place.

Work on the project began in 2012. Wharf construction began in the fall of 2019, and the project is expected to be finished by 2023.

Upon completion, the berth length will measure 775 metres, marking an increase from 435 metres. The vessel max draft at the pier will increase from 12.2 m at chart datum (low tide) to 15.5 m at chart datum (low tide). The main channel will have been widened from 150 metres to 190 metres and deepened from 8.4 m at chart datum (low tide) to 9.5 m at chart datum (high tide). Throughput capacity will double from 150,000 TEUs (20-foot equivalent units) to 300,000 TEUs. The railyard capacity will swell, from 3,060 feet to 4,010 feet and the load bearing capacity of the terminal will increase from 250 lbs/ft2 to 2000 lbs/ft2.

Port Saint John is one of the major ports in the Atlantic Gateway, located only an hour from the U.S. border and close to key markets on the east coast of the U.S., the Gulf Coast and South America. It’s closer to these markets than any other Atlantic Canadian port, and is fed by an excellent rail and road network.

Ports in the U.S. are becoming increasingly congested, leaving shippers and receivers to seek out other eastern options. The upgrade will present Port Saint John and New Brunswick as an ideal solution.

In addition to its government partners, Port Saint John joined forces with DP World for long-term operation of the West Side Container terminal beginning Jan. 1, 2017. In additional to the global reach of DP World, this partnership brought private-sector investment in terminal cargo handling equipment, which boosts the port’s capabilities even further.

Modernization means job creation

In this initial phase of West Side Modernization, activity from container growth alone will double direct and indirect jobs across the region, from 500 to more than 1,000, not including economic growth spinoffs. More than 1,400 person-years of direct and indirect jobs will be created during the current seven-year design and construction phase of the project, according to Port Saint John.

In early June 2020, concrete was poured for the first of 8 caissons that will form the base of the new wharf. Piles that are up to 130 feet long are being driven into bedrock to support a retaining wall between the new and old pier structures. Once in place, the wall will permit safe dredging conditions at this location, making more depth for ships with deeper draft alongside the new pier structure.

A project this size has had its challenges, but Port Saint John has tackled and overcome them. One challenge involved taking extra precautionary measures regarding slippage on slopes at the site, which required tests and analyses of the soil and careful mitigation in planning and design.

Another challenge is carrying out construction work around a port that’s still operational. This reality necessarily creates the need to plan phasing in future additional projects such as filling in two slip piers that will be closed off by the new pier structure.

“We’re putting in this new dock that spans across two slips,” Quinn says. These slips have seen less activity in the last 8 to 10 years, which provided opportunity to the project team to block off the two slips with the new dock and create a more modern and functional structure.

“We recognize that the Project we are carrying out now is precursor to filling in these slips. When the Port is ready, and the business case is present, we’ll continue work in a future phase at the much deeper, stronger docks being created now, and, at that point, we’ll create an additional 18 acres of land for cargo. By the time we do this future work we will have created an even larger, deeper, and stronger dock facility.”

The COVID-19 pandemic required precautions to be put in place, such as personal protective equipment, additional trailers to facilitate physical distancing, and checking the workforce daily — measures that all took time and affected the project’s schedule.

“The companies involved have done an excellent job and put appropriate measures in place, and it’s not just me saying that,” says Quinn, who adds that WorkSafeNB has been carrying out audits.

Despite the pandemic, Quinn expects the project will hit its targeted completion date.

“We’re in a rhythm now and I expect we’ll be on time with respect to the overall completion date,” he says. “Knocking on wood as I say this, but it’s all systems go, we’re proceeding on time, and it will be done within budget.”