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Container barges on the Fraser River may reduce pollution, but at what cost?: BCTA

SURREY, B.C. -- The Vancouver Fraser Port Authority is promoting a plan to use the Fraser River as a transportation...

SURREY, B.C. — The Vancouver Fraser Port Authority is promoting a plan to use the Fraser River as a transportation route for shipping containers on barges.

A discussion about using the Fraser River to short-haul container barges was put forth by the chief operating officer of the VFPA. Chris Badger was speaking at one of a series of public dialogues on sustainable growth and the economy, organized by Metro Vancouver last week.

It’s an environmental concept, intended to cut down on trucks that travel between Vancouver and Hope.

“We think it’s a wonderful idea,” said Badger, after the meeting. “The competitive cost of trucking is continuing to increase. We believe it’s going to become very cost competitive.”

When asked about the potential for more pedestrian ferries in the Metro Vancouver area, not unlike Sydney, Australia and Hong Kong, Badger wasn’t quite as enthusiastic about getting cars off the road, in favour of truck movement.

“Companies have tried to set that up. The trouble is, cars are fairly in-elastic,” said the former director of operations and harbour master for the Port of Nanaimo, where pedestrian ferries failed to gain acceptance, as he says has happened elsewhere in the Lower Mainland. “Costs are closer with trucking and barging. The potential is definitely there.”

The president of the B.C. Trucking Association is skeptical about the logistics of using container barges on the lower Fraser River, although Paul Landry can see some environmental advantages to the plan.

“If the waterways can be used to take pressure off the roads, it’s probably a good thing,” he said.

Presently containers that arrive by ship are unloaded and stacked, explained Landry. A truck picks up the container, and delivers it to the customer, which could be nearby in the Lower Mainland, or a longer distance – across the country. Adding a barge to that transportation plan, may get complicated, and costly, according to Landry.

“Since the containers don’t move themselves, it will be trucked to its final destination,” says Landry.

Landry compares the concept of barging containers to Hope with flying an aircraft from Vancouver International Airport to Langley, a short distance, but maybe not worth the effort, considering the logistics involved, despite the environmental benefits.

“Yes. You get people off the roads,” says Landry, who can understand the appeal of fewer vehicles on the road and the environmental benefits. “There are other things to be considered,” he adds.

In Bader’s discussion in favour of container barges, he noted that the container-carrying capacity of the Lower Fraser River could be increased by up to 10 times to create a water-based container highway that would take thousands of trucks off the road.

The cost of transferring containers more than once – from deep-sea vessels to short-haul vessels and then to trucks or rail – in their trip from port to market has been prohibitive until now, he added.

Such a system could vastly reduce the number of kilometres driven by trucks to deliver goods from the port to local businesses, according to Badger.

Rather than trucking a single container through the most densely populated part of B.C. to get to a warehouse or a Canadian Tire in Surrey, hundreds of containers could be brought to a terminal on the Fraser in Surrey.

Fraser Docks already handles 200,000 to 300,000 containers a year in Surrey, and Badger says the container traffic on the Fraser is only at 10 to 15% of capacity.

– With files from CanWest News Service

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