Moving goods along the Fraser River is a great idea, and I’d love to see more of it. To achieve this, we have to shift the regional transportation and land use conversation so that short sea shipping can compete with trucking.
Unfortunately, our current provincial government prefers roads; it wants to build a massive new bridge replacement for the Massey Tunnel. Some environmentalists are worried this is to allow bigger ships on the River. I worry more that the Massey Bridge is yet another roadway expansion that will make water and rail transportation even less competitive with trucking. The River is already deep enough for container barges; they just can’t compete when truck routes keep getting built with public money.
Short sea shipping is defined by Metro Vancouver as “the movement of cargo by water over relatively short distances, excluding trans-oceanic voyages.” In our region, that would mean more use of the Fraser River and the waters of the Strait of Georgia to transport goods, and less movement of goods on roads by truck. What’s not to like about that? Waterways are an underused piece of the transportation system that make sense for New Westminster, the Lower Mainland, and the planet.
Compared to road travel, river transport is environmentally efficient; it uses less energy and emits fewer pollutants per tonne moved, but it likely has not been adopted regionally because the financial case isn’t great. Cargo movement on the river loses out to movement by road because trucks are a cheaper and more convenient option for the powerful parties who move the goods we consume and export. The challenge is this: how can we close the gap between what we all want as citizens—namely fewer trucks moving through our neighbourhoods and less demand on taxpayers to pay for the roads that the trucks move on—and what we all want as workers and consumers, namely cheap and efficient ways of moving goods between points of production, assembly, and use?
We already move some cargo around this region by water—lumber, wood chips, stone, and gravel. These goods are low value. They’re heavy and bulky relative to their value, and generally not time-sensitive. They’re not like smartphones (high-value relative to weight), new cars (high-value even though bulky), or wet cement (heavy but time-sensitive). I’m grateful some low-value goods are transported by water or rail, but I’d like to see more.
Waterways aren’t currently used to transport containers and the high-value goods they hold within the region. Getting a significant proportion of container movements off the roads and onto the river (and local rail) is the bigger prize, but it is also the harder thing to do, especially when municipalities like Vancouver are removing railways.
Take, for example, the relatively new Damco transloading facility on Port of Vancouver land in Queensborough. This is an important hub of economic activity on prime waterfront land, yet all the movements in and out are by truck. The facility is a point where marine containers full of imported goods are opened and the goods are repacked into longer domestic containers. The empty marine containers eventually go back to the port terminals, but often they are first moved somewhere else in the region to be stored and then stuffed full of exported goods. Every imported container makes at least two, but typically three or possibly four, trips along the region’s congested roads. So too do long domestic containers taken by road to destinations across BC, western Canada, and beyond.
Imagine how different it could be if marine containers arrived in Queensborough by barge or rail. Geography is a problem in our region: moving cargo from the Burrard Inlet to locations along the Fraser River by water is probably never going to be as cheap as moving it overland. But short sea shipping from Deltaport is achievable, as is local rail from the Burrard Inlet. Short sea shipping is economically competitive when relatively large volumes are moved between large facilities. Protecting large waterfront sites for industrial use and ensuring those facilities are designed for water-based activity is part of the solution. This can be difficult for communities to accept—we love walkways along the waterfront, but these actually make it more difficult to move goods on water rather than by road.
Imagine how many truck trips could be eliminated if marine containers could be filled with Canadian exports on site, instead of moving them elsewhere? This is precisely what is supposed to—and to some extent does—happen at the Coast2000 facility in Richmond. Import containers are unloaded at adjacent warehouses and filled with export lumber and pulp that comes from inland mills by train. The missing piece, however, is that despite having a wharf facility, Coast2000 is not connected to Deltaport by barge.
Short sea shipping can’t compete until road transport pays its full share of the real costs. These include both the external costs of burning fossil fuel and tax revenues used to build roads. This is why road pricing and proper pricing of burning carbon fuels would be good for short sea shipping.
Reducing the cost of shipping operations is also part of the solution. Short sea shipping is more competitive when it can transport a greater volume (i.e., 100-200 containers per barge rather than one per truck), but that raises the relative costs of loading those barges. So we need to think about ways to reduce the cost of short sea shipping handling operations. This is a complex challenge, likely requiring some changes in work rules of longshore workers and sailors. However, it would be good for the region to have more well-paid, stable marine jobs, and fewer risky, low-paid trucking jobs.
Lastly, it is sometimes claimed that short sea shipping will reduce road congestion. I’m not sure this is correct, or if it is even the right argument to make. In the short run, taking containers off the road and placing them on barges will reduce some road use. But, more importantly, having water (and local rail and transit) compete effectively with road transportation reduces the demand and political support for the road-building industry. When politicians are convinced by suburban commuters and real estate developers to build roads, they make it harder for sustainable transportation alternatives. The goal of short sea shipping shouldn’t be to get the trucks off the road so they can be filled by cars, just as the goal of transit shouldn’t be to get the cars off the road just so they can be filled by trucks.