People or products?
When it comes to transportation infrastructure priorities in B.C., politics would side with the former; supply chain economics would back the latter.
So, it’s not hard to guess where the focus of discussion is on that file in the lead-up to the province’s 2023-24 budget.
Commuter angst has reached a frequency that has become increasingly difficult for political ears to tune out. Especially in the Lower Mainland, and no more so than south of the Fraser River, where, as Surrey-White Rock MLA Trevor Halford pointed out, “I live in a community that has absolutely no access to public transit.”
The transportation angst flashpoint for Halford, a BC Liberal, and his constituents is the much-needed and long-delayed George Massey Tunnel replacement.
The BC NDP mothballed the BC Liberals’ $3.5 billion 10-lane bridge plan in 2017. Its Plan B is an eight-lane $4.15 billion tunnel. However, it still needs environmental review.
That presents another potential lengthy delay in the area’s long wait for commuter relief from what Halford called “one of the worst bottlenecks in Western Canada.”
For Halford and other commuters in his riding, the tunnel replacement’s upwardly spiralling costs and delays are especially frustrating today because had the Liberals’ 10-lane bridge project been approved, the crossing and its promise of a rapid transit link to the area was scheduled to have been completed by now.
“And, you know, they took $100 million of pre-work and scrapped that and shelved an existing project that would have been completed by now. And now, I can’t even tell you when the tunnel is set to be open, because they’ve got no environmental approval for it.”
Halford, the Liberals’ shadow minister for transportation and infrastructure, also fired shots at the NDP’s plan for upgrading the Pattullo Bridge, which he noted was already a year behind schedule.
“It’s a four-lane bridge, and they are replacing it with – a four-lane bridge.
“And everybody you talk to in that area, whether it’s the Surrey Board of Trade or the municipalities, will all say the same thing: Why aren’t you expanding that now and doing the heavy lifting now as opposed to doing it at an absolute crunch time. We need additional space there now, so it makes absolutely no sense to me how they’re planning transit out here.”
Metro Vancouver transit is one of the top three transportation and infrastructure priorities on the list B.C.’s Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure provided in an email response to BIV.
It noted, for example, that the Broadway subway project and the Surrey Langley SkyTrain will expand Metro Vancouver’s SkyTrain network by 27 per cent.
In addition to replacing the Massey Tunnel, the ministry included the $600 million Kicking Horse Canyon project on its top three list. It includes four new bridges and nine new viaducts and is designed to improve safety and goods movement efficiency as part of the province’s Highway 1 Kamloops-to-Alberta border program.
And goods movement is a critical piece of B.C.’s transportation puzzle considering how important it is to the economies of the province and the rest of the country.
As the National Supply Chain Task Force 2022 (NSCTF) notes in its most recent report, Canada’s transportation supply chain contributed $72 billion to its gross domestic product (GDP) in 2021. International trade, meanwhile, has contributed more than half the value of the country’s GDP every year since 1992.
The federal government is responsible for much of Canada’s supply chain infrastructure and operation, but B.C. and other provinces are a fundamental part of building a more resilient and efficient national goods movement system.
The Port of Vancouver, for example, is still recovering from the wildfires and floods in July and November 2021. At the peak of the wildfire crisis, the operations of Canada’s two railways were cut by around 30 per cent. The NSCTF estimates that represented $163 million per day in stalled shipping value. The November floods, meanwhile, resulted in approximately $170 million per day in lost train capacity.
For Anthony Perl, an urban studies professor at Simon Fraser University (SFU), the lesson from those two weather-related teaching moments is: Don’t build more before you build back better what has been damaged or lost.
“The last year or two have made it clear that what we need is resilient infrastructure. And that costs money to reinvest in what we already have.… I’m not an engineer, but I'm pretty sure that we have some big risks in our transportation infrastructure, as we’ve already started to see, and that the costs of managing that have not really been fully factored in, because these storms of the century were not anticipated to be showing up every year the way they are. So, it’s about resilience and climate proofing what we’ve got, or at least an essential network of it before we build new tunnels and big-ticket items.”
Fellow SFU urban studies professor Peter Hall agreed, but he added that providing more transit options has got to be the priority.
“Because, you know, you can build a 45-lane bridge, and eventually we’ll find a way to crowd it for a couple of hours a day.”
When it comes to Metro Vancouver goods movement initiatives, Hall said, “it’s probably not a moment for new initiatives. It’s more about getting things that are underway finished.”
But B.C.’s Asia-Pacific Gateway needs help now.
While transpacific cargo to North America’s West Coast has slowed significantly in 2023’s first quarter compared with the same time in 2022, it is still forecast to expand over the next decade.
With funding primarily from container terminals and other port tenants, the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority (VFPA) is spearheading the $141 million Pitt Meadows Road and Rail project, the $145 million Holdom Overpass in Burnaby and other local road and rail goods movement improvement projects.
Addressing Metro Vancouver’s industrial land shortage tops the list of transportation infrastructure priorities provided to BIV by the VFPA. That shortage, especially of industrial land that can support trade and supply-chain activities has, according to the VFPA, “reached crisis levels and is impacting our transportation networks. For example, currently we have trucks driving goods that came through the Port of Vancouver driving back to the Lower Mainland from distribution hubs in Alberta because companies are unable to find adequate, affordable industrial land locally.”
Hall said the region’s rapidly shrinking industrial land inventory is a perennial concern that the province needs to address now by committing to preserve what is left.
“If the province is going to talk about getting involved in squeezing municipalities to accelerate housing approvals, it would be great if they also accompanied that with a very strong commitment to not let that become another reason to take lands out of industrial use.”
Meanwhile Dubai-based DP World is close to completing a $350 million expansion of the port’s Centerm container terminal that will increase its annual cargo handling capacity to 1.5 million 20-foot-equivalent units (TEUs) from 900,000.
GCT Global Container Terminals Inc.’s $300 million investment in a semi-automated rail densification project at GCT Deltaport has increased its rail capacity 50 per cent and its overall container terminal capacity 33 per cent to 2.4 million TEUs annually.
And the federal cabinet is set to make a final decision on the VFPA’s controversial $3.5 billion proposal to expand container handling capacity at Roberts Bank.
But the downstream movement of cargo from port terminals also needs attention and not just from the federal government.
Marko Dekovic, GCT’s vice-president of public affairs, said that when the provincial transportation ministry is looking at its goods movement strategy, “they need to look at optimizing the transportation assets across the province to serve the purposes of the province, but also Canada. And what that means is they need to work hand in glove with the federal government.”
He added that some work on that co-operative and co-ordinated supply chain focus has been done through the Western Transportation Advisory Council (WESTAC), a transportation forum for Western Canada.
“We need to holistically look at the Port of Vancouver, the Port of Prince Rupert, the Port of Nanaimo. How is the province going to optimize those assets, so that those ports and those outlets where rail meets tidewater are being most effectively utilized for the needs of the province [and] the country?”
Dekovic’s No. 1 recommendation in GCT’s June 2022 presentation to the provincial government’s Select Standing Committee on Finance and Government Services was prioritizing and accelerating the province’s goods movement strategy and making infrastructure optimization a key component of that strategy.