GUEST COLUMN: Is it time to embrace short sea shipping in Metro Vancouver?

Short sea shipping makes sense, but is limited in its application on the Fraser River currently. - Contributed photo
Short sea shipping makes sense, but is limited in its application on the Fraser River currently.
— image credit: Contributed photo

Greater Vancouver is a thriving port Gateway to the World.

This role has shaped the region and in many ways, has greatly influenced our individual lives. The activities associated with port operations offer our region prosperity and numerous related employment opportunities. But no one can deny that transport of cargo from the many port terminals in our region is a challenge for our road network. No wonder discussions about bridges, tunnels, highways and congestion on local roads are often at the forefront of news.

Does the answer to the problem, at least partially, rest with short sea shipping? Transport Canada defines short sea shipping “in the North American context” as “a multi-modal concept involving the marine transportation of passengers and goods that does not cross oceans and takes place within and among Canada, the United States and Mexico.”

Locally, short sea shipping could be developed to transport by water much of the cargo coming from and going to our local port terminals and remove it from the roads through better utilisation of the Fraser River as a marine highway.

Short sea shipping could decrease significantly the numbers of trucks on our roads, a clear advantage that could also help reduce the cost of road maintenance, alleviate traffic congestion, and improve air quality in our region.

Short sea shipping is nothing new on the B.C. coast. Historically, before roads were built in our wild, coastal province, waterways were the best and sometimes the only option for transport. Through the years, a healthy short sea shipping industry has developed on the Fraser River for the transport of forest products and aggregate. But the movement of containers from local port terminals is still largely done by roads. Yet marine shipping is more efficient with a single barge capable of transporting the cargo of 220 35-tonne trucks. In addition, marine transport has generally a smaller environmental footprint and lower social impact than land transportation, producing less noise, air pollution and making our roads safer.

In Europe, short sea shipping accounts for 40 per cent of all freight movements inland and is at the heart of the European Union’s transportation policy. So why is short sea shipping on the Fraser River not implemented for the movement of Asia Pacific Gateway containerized goods?

It is a question of infrastructure and cost. Terminals at different points along the river would have to be built, equipped for transfer of cargo and made accessible by rail and road to facilitate further transport inland in a cost competitive manner. Is it time for municipalities in Metro Vancouver and the Fraser Valley to work with Port Metro Vancouver to welcome short sea shipping terminals on their shores to bring better efficiencies to the Asia Pacific Gateway and offer their residents significant social and environmental benefits?

It is an interesting question and one I believe merits some attention.

Catherine Ouellet-Martin is executive director of Fraser River Discovery Centre.

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