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Editorial: A West Coast container conundrum

There’s no doubt that Vancouver needs a far-sighted port plan; there is doubt, however, over the plan’s details.

There’s no doubt that Vancouver needs a far-sighted port plan; there is doubt, however, over the plan’s details.

Vancouver Fraser Port Authority (VFPA) CEO Robin Silvester delivered some of those details late last year in his 10th annual address to the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade. Included was his call for a co-ordinated plan to preserve and secure industrial land assets to ensure expansion opportunities for B.C.’s Asia-Pacific Gateway. Those assets are fundamental to maintaining trade efficiency for the Metro Vancouver region and the entire country.

Silvester also raised concerns about the frustratingly slow approval process for port infrastructure projects and used the VFPA’s much delayed Terminal 2 initiative as an example. The multibillion-dollar project at Roberts Bank would help address the port’s need for more container-handling capacity.

The VFPA estimates that Vancouver’s annual share of transpacific container traffic will reach between 6.7 million and 9.7 million 20-foot-equivalent units (TEUs) by 2040. The Port of Vancouver handled 3.4 million in 2018.

But trade disputes, global economic conditions, technological disruption along the logistics chain and other factors will have much to say about the VFPA’s cargo projections.

Its Terminal 2 gamble might be a winner, but adding a massive amount of container capacity in one project might also be an expensive miscalculation.

Other projects could add capacity incrementally. Global Container Terminals Inc., for example, wants to invest $1 billion to add a fourth container berth and two million TEUs at GCT Deltaport. It’s challenge, however, is twofold. The project faces the same slow-motion approval process Terminal 2 has been inching through for the past six years.

But perhaps more challenging is a federal ports operation system that allows its landlord, the VFPA, to also be its competitor. That makes GCT and incremental increases in container-handling capacity a long-shot option at best. The drawback for the Asia-Pacific Gateway, however, is that it might be the best option.