Published originally in Business in Vancouver, May 3rd, 2016
Robin Silvester, president and CEO of Port Metro Vancouver, has said that “the shrinking supply of trade-enabling industrial land is the largest threat facing the Vancouver trade gateway and the region’s continuing livability.”
It’s a view backed up by the latest Metro Vancouver study on industrial land, which says that we’ll run out by 2030, and we’re already down to just a few sites for “trade-enabling logistics uses.”
The port has already started buying up farmland, and land developers are joining in, anticipating an inevitable erosion of the Agricultural Land Reserve. One way to relieve some of this pressure and enable more efficient goods movement is to shift some port functions inland. Curiously, that option gets a cold shoulder from the port. Silvester has called inland ports an “oxymoron.” Vancouver Fraser Port Authority vice-president of corporate social responsibility Duncan Wilson told a Vancouver Board of Trade panel in 2012: “We do not support development of inland terminals.”
That view contrasts with a 2007 report commissioned by then-minister of international trade David Emerson. It called for a system of inland terminals to reduce port congestion, congestion on the roads and “road-related investment caused by this unnecessary movement of trucks. … Virtually every port around the world is planning to use rail to move containers quickly to some variation of an inland terminal.”
The closest inland port to Vancouver is Ashcroft Terminal, 340 kilometres northeast of Vancouver. It’s the last location westbound, and the first eastbound, where both CP and CN trains can stop en route to or from Metro Vancouver. It has 320 acres available, almost the size of Deltaport and Westshore Terminals combined, with only 10% currently being used.
Ashcroft is especially suited to loading empty containers headed back to Vancouver with B.C. wood products. Those trains could go directly to the docks, avoiding multiple truck trips now required to get the products into containers and out to the docks. Silvester has said that an inland port would increase truck traffic, but a study commissioned by the Corporation of Delta in 2014 found the opposite: under a conservative scenario, an inland port could eliminate 360 truck trips a day to and from Delta container terminals by 2031.
If a “moderate” amount of transloading went inland, that number would jump to 1,080 trips a day, or 650,000 trips a year: one out of nine truck trips to and from Deltaport.
Ashcroft Terminal vice-president of projects and development Kleo Landucci, whose family owns Ashcroft Terminal, says the region is missing out on the best solutions for railroads, shippers and producers.
Her view is echoed by a recent Metro Vancouver report that stated: “The knowledge base on regional goods movement is fragmented with out-of-date and incomplete information.”
The B.C. government could step up and match an investment Transport Canada recently made in additional rail capacity in Ashcroft, but it seems to be fixated on roads and bridges that serve the port.
Delta Mayor Lois Jackson has gamely rallied stakeholders around the Ashcroft option but can push them only so far.
“We absolutely believe there are economic and environmental reasons to use inland ports,” said Sean McGill, director of human resources and corporate planning for Delta.
The Vancouver Fraser Port Authority said the market will sort this out, with shippers, producers and railroads choosing the most profitable option. But those options depend a lot on how agencies like the port – whose mandate includes “collaboration with government and others on projects beyond port lands” – respond to larger economic and environmental issues like protecting agricultural land, new greenhouse gas emission targets, the shrinking industrial land supply, rising land prices, rising sea levels and new tolls.
With the industrial land crunch now upon us, it’s time to explore all opportunities to improve freight movement for railroads, shippers and producers, not just the ones that fit into the Lower Mainland. •
Peter Ladner ([email protected]) is a co-founder of Business in Vancouver. He is a former Vancouver city councillor and former fellow at the SFU Centre for Dialogue.