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Sydney harbour port marketers say Cape Breton rail line is final stumbling block to project development

Fall colours and falling leaves frame this portion of the Cape Breton and Central Nova Scotia Railway in Balls Creek from October 2019. The promoters of a proposed Sydney harbour container port say rehabilitating the dormant railway is the last hurdle facing the development.  GREG MCNEIL/CAPE BRETON POST
Fall colours and falling leaves frame this portion of the Cape Breton and Central Nova Scotia Railway in Balls Creek from October 2019. The promoters of a proposed Sydney harbour container port say rehabilitating the dormant railway is the last hurdle facing the development. GREG MCNEIL/CAPE BRETON POST
SYDNEY, N.S. —

There is just one remaining obstacle before work can begin on Sydney harbour’s proposed container port, says one of the powerbrokers behind the project.

And that hurdle, according to Albert Barbusci, is the lack of an adequate railway, a key piece of infrastructure that he stresses is mandatory to the initiative known as Novaporte.   

The Montréal-based Barbusci is the chief executive officer of Sydney Harbour Investment Partners (SHIP), the firm that has a years-old exclusivity agreement with the Cape Breton Regional Municipality to market port development.

Albert Barbusci
Albert Barbusci

“Our problem is that we don’t own the line,” he said, in a telephone interview with the Cape Breton Post on Thursday.

“Everything else is in our hands, we have all the necessary shipping lines and port operators, we’ve been in discussions for years – but the rail needs to be rehabilitated and running again before we put a shovel in the ground.”

However, getting Cape Breton Island’s dormant rail line back in service isn’t as easy as just sending a train down the tracks. The rails haven’t borne the weight of an engine or freight car since 2015 and much of the track infrastructure needs both reparation and upgrade.

Another problem is that the Cape Breton and Central Nova Scotia Railway is owned by foreign interests. In fact, the Nova Scotia government has been paying line owner, U.S.-based Genesee and Wyoming, a monthly stipend of up to $60,000, although the actual payments made are said to be about half of that amount, in return for not tearing up the Cape Breton portion of the line.

According to Barbusci, there’s nothing more he can do until a guarantee is made that the railway will be restored.

“All the pieces are now in place, all the heavy lifting is done – this is a call to action, it’s rallying the community,” he said, in explaining why SHIP issued a news release this week calling on the provincial government to commit to the salvation of the railway.

“It’s an opportune time for the community. They’ve been left in the dark. I think it’s time for them to know that this is real. And if they like it they can call their MLAs and MPs and make some noise.”

Given that there has been very little port development news over the past couple of years, with the exception of the Membertou First Nation and Bridging Finance Inc.’s signing on with the Novaporte partnership in January, the Post asked Barbusci whether the “Cape Breton is Ready for Rail” press release has anything to do with the CBRM municipal election campaign that is now underway.

“The coincidence is with our timing,” he said.

“Yes, we could have launched this in a couple of weeks’ time but I think it’s important to get it out there on the street. We’re not getting involved in the politics, but I can say that both mayor and council have been very important and that it was wise to sign the exclusivity agreement that we have because it allowed us, the private sector, to put our money behind the project and get it to this stage.”

This is the conceptual image of the proposed Novazone logistics park that would support the Novaporte container terminal in Sydney harbour. Sydney Harbour Investment Partners is marketing the port internationally and says the only thing holding back the development is a guarantee that the dormant Cape Breton Island rail line will be rehabilitated. CONTRIBUTED
This is the conceptual image of the proposed Novazone logistics park that would support the Novaporte container terminal in Sydney harbour. Sydney Harbour Investment Partners is marketing the port internationally and says the only thing holding back the development is a guarantee that the dormant Cape Breton Island rail line will be rehabilitated. CONTRIBUTED

 

Barbusci also said it’s imperative that the rail issue be resolved before competition for such a superport arises from cities such as Saint John, N.B., and Québec City, port cities that respectively have Canadian Pacific and Canadian National routes, and possibly from some American cities.

“But you have the best site by far with a spacious, deep water harbour, a perfect location and room to expand,” he said of Sydney harbour.

Meanwhile, Cape Breton Chamber of Commerce chief executive officer Kathleen Yurchesyn reiterated her group’s support for the proposed development that, if it proceeds, will be located north of the Sydport Industrial Park on the west side of the south arm of Sydney harbour.

“An upgraded rail line and the construction of the Sydney container port by Novaporte will have tremendous economic impact on our community and region for generations to come,” said Yurchesyn.

“We are confident that the revitalization of our rail line will create significant long-term employment and new opportunities for our Cape Breton businesses and communities to thrive.”

According to SHIP, a $500-million private sector investment in Novaporte’s first phase is estimated to create 12,814 jobs, $896 million in wages and $139 million in regional, provincial and federal taxes during construction. Furthermore, the firm suggests that annual operations of the first phase are estimated to create 2,647 jobs, $137 million in wages and $61 million in taxes for the three levels of government.

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