Sunday, October 16, 2011

Michigan, Are We Ready for This? A Real Economic Development Opportunity.

Last week I had the opportunity to attend a meeting held by the Great Lakes Global Freight Gateway Project. That is a non-profit strategic planning group exploring steps to develop a global trade route connecting Southeastern Michigan to Asia through Halifax, Nova Scotia.

More than thirty major companies participated in a meeting held October 15 at Detroit Metro, including representatives from autos and auto suppliers, express shippers, and durable and consumer goods manufacturers, and freight integrators, as well as representatives from government in the region, including Canada.

According to their news release:

“The project envisions transforming southeast Michigan into an inland port, much like Chicago. The Gateway is projected to create $11 billion in new economic activity and 150,000 new jobs.

The Gateway's goal is to increase the number of international cargo containers now moving into Detroit by rail by 1,000% in the next four years.

Shipping through the Gateway's route will be less expensive, faster and cleaner, reduce shipping costs will by $250 to $930 less per container, and take three days to two weeks less in travel time, depending on point of origin.

The Global Gateway estimates that a company moving 1,000 containers a year would save a million dollars annually or more by using the new trade route.

The project will launch to coincide with the arrival on the high seas of new Super Post-Panamax ships carrying 15,000 to 18,000 containers per ship. Most North American ports aren't deep enough to handle them. The Port of Halifax is one of only two on the East Coast that can handle such big ships, CN Railway has additional ports on the west coast of Canada that also have that capacity, along with on-dock rail for quick transfer of containers from ship to rail for delivery to Midwest destinations.

For most of its history, from the fur and lumber trade days of the 1600s through the great auto era in the 1900s, Detroit was considered the ideal location in North America for trans-shipping because of its central location on land and water locations for sailing cargo vessels, as well as the short river crossings into Canada. Today, it is seen once again as the ideal inland port for the new global trade route because of the proximity of available land, existing rail and interstate highways and truck access in all directions.

"We see a rare opportunity here," said Roger Lane, one of the project leaders and a former Detroit Edison executive. "If we do not take advantage of this now, we may not have another chance to put Southeastern Michigan back at the center of the global economy for many years."

The Global Gateway project builds on Translinked, a concept initiated by the Detroit Regional Chamber's retired leader, Dick Blouse. In its current form it is the work of its leader and CEO, Dr. Michael Belzer, an economist and planner who teaches at Wayne State University.

"The beauty of this plan is that so much infrastructure is already in place," Belzer said. "It doesn't need a study. It doesn't need a massive plan. It doesn't need much in the way legislative or government approval. The elements need to be linked and coordinated and then managed smoothly. It's really ready to implement and execute."

Lane and Belzer stressed that The Global Gateway and its partners are not in the business of building bridges or tunnels, and do not intend to be.

"It's up to others to decide who builds what, and whether it is a bridge or a tunnel," Lane said. "We've got the means and ability to move the goods, make more jobs, and help build the economy into something vastly bigger than at any time since the auto industry began to decline. And Detroit is the natural place to put this."”

What is exciting about this strategic effort is how it ties into the vision of Michigan capitalizing on its geographical advantage of being in the direct path of the Montreal, Toronto, Windsor, Detroit and Chicago trade corridor. In contrast to the typical perception of Michiganders that Michigan is a peninsula state, this vision of the trade corridor opens great, new opportunities for economic development.

This Gateway effort ties in beautifully with

  • the efforts of Aerotropolis,
  • a freeway to freeway connection for trucks between Windsor and Detroit (whether it be NITC or the Ambassador Bridge),
  • a new train tunnel (or bridge) between Windsor and Detroit that will accommodate double stacked container cars (the current tunnel does not, and the containers need to be unstacked to go through),
  • improved train track between Detroit and Chicago recently funded,
  • areas within Detroit available for redevelopment as multimodal freight hubs and
  • efforts to maintain our state’s existing road and bridges

The Gateway’s information goes on to say:

“A coordinated sea, rail, air and truck trade route between Southeast Asia and the heart of the North American continent that will move Southeast Michigan to the center of the global trade network and spur a vast economic revitalization of the region. Using Halifax as its port and Southeast Michigan as a distribution hub, linked by Canadian rail, the project expects to create $11 billion in new economic activity and 210,000 new jobs over ten years. The Gateway is a strategic plan, ready for implementation and execution that cuts travel time, saves costs, and is sustainable and earth-friendly for shippers and customers.

The Great Lakes Global Freight Gateway facilitates the expansion of freight volumes and logistics development in Southeast Michigan by working directly with Canadian railroads, the State of Michigan and shipping customers. The project builds upon existing infrastructure, is initially focused on increasing rail freight volumes and will take advantage of any new infrastructure assets such as a second crossing from Windsor to Detroit or further expansion of the Aerotropolis.

Southeast Michigan is the closest International crossing with Canada, has land available for development and Canadian rail lines are already located exactly where they need to be for success. One key opportunity lies with the Super Post-Panamax ships currently on order by Maersk, the largest the world has ever seen, each able to carry 18,000 containers per trip. These ships are so massive; they can only land at two Eastern ports, Halifax and Norfolk. Halifax has the capacity to handle these ships and combined with the rail capacity of CN to move goods across Canada directly to Southeast Michigan makes for a winning combination for our region. Our existing highway system, our productive workforce and the Aerotropolis development offer great opportunities for our region to add value to this freight and move it quickly on to other parts of the country. Michigan is also a large Agricultural player and the Great Lakes Global Freight Gateway opens up more channels for export of our agricultural assets to the world market through the same CN/Halifax connection.”

Now this opportunity is something to get excited about! Are we ready for this? You bet!

There will always be other states or countries that will be able to outcompete with us based on lower wages. Despite our significant brainpower centered around our three great research universities and world class companies, there are very smart people in many other places. What no one can take away is our strategic advantage based on our geographical location. We would be fools if we did not do everything we can to capitalize on this.

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