Study finds significant impacts of 24-hour port

Havre Daily News

by Tim Leeds

Despite warning that he used very conservative estimates in his study, an economist has concluded that upgrading the Port of Wildhorse north of Havre to a 24-hour commercial port would result in increased traffic and increased economic activity in northcentral Montana.

"Economics is a science that sometimes has a stranglehold on the obvious, and I think that shows in this report," Patrick Barkey, Ph.D., of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana in Missoula, said Thursday.

The presentation had to be moved to a bigger room as people continued to arrive after its scheduled 1:30 p.m. start. As people continued to enter Room 203 at Brockmann Center at Montana State University-Northern after all the seats had been filled, the presentation was moved to Hensler Auditorium in the university's Applied Technology Center.

"There's too much excitement," said Harold Wilson, executive director of the Economic Development Alliance of Southeast Alberta. "We have to move to a bigger venue."

Barkey conducted a study on the impacts of upgrading the port, commissioned by the international Wildhorse Port Border Committee. Barkey concluded that upgrading the port would at least quadruple commercial traffic through the port, including traffic to and from the oil fields in eastern Alberta and the booming oil sands in the Fort Macmurray area. Looking at the traffic rates in other 24-hour commercial ports it is likely to increase traffic overall by at least 30 percent just by being open 24-hours, he said. The port is now open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the winter and 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. in the summer. Commercial traffic is allowed by permit only. The increased activity is likely to create at least $12.6 million annually in new spending in the five-county area served by Bear Paw Development Corp, the region he studied, and create as Much as 265 new jobs and a 500-person population increase, Barkey said.

The study, funded by a $15,000 grant from the Montana Department of Commerce with matching funds provided by the City of Havre, Hill County and 32 businesses, looked at what would happen in the area if the port was upgraded, providing a better connection to the incredible economic growth in Alberta. Much of that growth is spurred by oil development, including billion-dollar investments in the oil sands and from oil companies tapping into the second-largest oil reserve in the world.

Havre Mayor Bob Rice, cochair of the port committee, said after the presentation that the study results are exactly what the group pushing for the upgrade was looking for.

"Everybody says (upgrading the port) is a no-brainer, but sometimes it doesn't register for everyone," he said. "Dr. Barkey really put it on the table for us."

Sen. Jon Tester, who sponsored a bill in the U.S. Senate last fall directing the U.S. Customs and Border Protection section of the Department of Homeland Security to designate the Port of Wildhorse a commercial port and to operate it 24-hours-a-day, said the results of the study will help with that bill.

"This study shows very clearly that the Port of Wildhorse needs to be a 24-hour port," Tester said in a release Thursday. "Increasing traffic through a 24-hour port by a third will bring real economic benefits and good-paying jobs to the Hi-Line. I look forward to sharing this information with my colleagues in the U.S. Senate as we continue to move this legislation forward."

Tester's bill has been referred to the Senate Finance Committee, chaired by Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont. Staff members of Rep. Dennis Rehberg, R-Mont., and Tester and Baucus were at the presentation, as well as members of the Wildhorse Border Committee from both sides of the border.

The committee, co-chaired by Rice and former Medicine Hat Mayor Garth Vallely, includes seven members from Montana and seven from Alberta. Vallely said during the meeting that the Alberta group is continuing to push the issue very hard, including a study it has conducted, which has not yet been released, and work being done by Canada's Minister of Human Resources and Social Development Monte Solberg and Len Mitzel, a member of Alberta's Legislative Assembly.

"We always used to kid each other who was ahead of who," Vallely said. "I think you might actually be ahead of us at this point." One concern raised at the meeting was the condition of the roads and lack of services — including cell phone service — on the road to Wildhorse. Members of the committee said they have also looked at that concern, and that the Montana Department of Transportation is also in the loop on the issue. Wilson said that once the port is upgraded and traffic increases, that will justify investing in improvements.

"You say, 'Traffic has quadrupled, why don't you upgrade the infrastructure?'" he said. Vallely said the first concern is to upgrade the port. "You have to crawl before you walk and you have to walk before you run," he said. "What we want the two federal governments to do is to build the 24-hour border crossing, and then the other stuff will come in."