If you’re ever in Vancouver, Doug Mills has a tour for you! “One of my favourite things to do is get farmers out on the water,” says Mills, senior account representative with the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority. Why farmers in particular? Because he wants them to physically see what the port authority has done to improve the shipment of Canada’s agricultural products, and to show them what’s to come.
“Agriculture is extremely important,” he says, adding that, of the many industries moving goods through the Port of Vancouver, agriculture represents the largest investment of private dollars into building, upgrading and expanding export facilities and supply chain capacity.
Indeed, the Port of Vancouver handled 147 million tonnes of cargo in 2018, 27 million tonnes of which was exported grain. Mills says the port authority is projecting an annual growth rate of 3.6 per cent per year. “That’s a five million tonne a year growth rate — that’s huge,” he says. “We’re looking at generational change.”
In some ways, Vancouver’s port has to be seen to be appreciated. The sheer size of docks and terminals, the towering cranes and massive ships are awe-inspiring in an expected kind of way — big stuff is always cool. It’s the less visible things like “last mile” infrastructure, the seamlessness of just-in-time delivery going on all around you, and the sense of calm that pervades the busiest export seaport in Canada — signs of a well-oiled machine. And for farmers on the Prairies, this should mean a lot.
PLANNING FOR GROWTH
Over the past 15 years or so, the Port of Vancouver has flown under the public’s radar as it quietly went about becoming North America’s largest export port (by tonnage) and certainly the largest port in any sense of the word in Canada.
“The Panama Canal expansion was a $6 billion investment,” says Mills, noting that the whole world paid attention to that project, which wrapped up in June of 2016. “By comparison there has been a $7.5 billion investment into our capacity, and we’re targeting billions more for future expansion.”
With the Port of Vancouver currently covering 17,000 hectares of land and water in what is essentially the heart of downtown Vancouver, one wonders where the space for this expansion exists.
Mills says growth is about improving efficiency and eliminating bottlenecks in order to increase the smooth flow of goods to and from the port. In other words, expansion doesn’t necessarily mean a bigger footprint.
“Access to the terminals is the thing,” he says. “Much of the investment the port authority is making is in off-jurisdictional infrastructure.” He explains this involves what he calls “the last mile” — basically the Lower Mainland — where trucks and trains from across the country converge on the Port of Vancouver and where pinch points and community interaction is at its thickest.
“We brought in national and global experts who modelled this gateway through all access points,” says Mills. This planning was initiated under the Asia Pacific Gateway and Corridor Initiative in the mid-2000s. “This gave us a list of priorities for investment, and allowed us to go to our investment partners and say, you should invest here.”
To give but one example, the port authority invested in major road infrastructure in the City of Langley, which lies roughly midway between its docks and Abbotsford.
“Langley is outside Vancouver’s jurisdiction, but it’s on a main rail artery that accesses our terminals,” explains Mills. The track runs right through the town centre, so every time trains came through, crossing arms lowered, bells rang, train whistles blew (as they legally must when approaching a level crossing) and the city virtually ground to a halt as citizens waited for trains to pass. It was noisy, irritating, inconvenient and even unsafe — emergency vehicles had to wait like everyone else.
“So if you’re going to talk about increased train traffic, it’s a problem for the community and there’s an automatic pushback for growth if you don’t do something about it,” says Mills. With the overpass now in place, he says, train traffic can double or triple with less interruption to the community than before, along with unimpeded road access to both sides of town and way less noise — no more level crossings mean no more whistles and bells.
WHAT ABOUT AG?
So what does all this have to do with you getting the grain out of your bin? Getting train cars to port is half of the equation. Ensuring the port is running at maximum efficiency is the other half.
Mills says that, by tonnage, wheat and canola represent the largest grain exports out of the port, followed by flax and barley, then special crops, mainly in the form of pulses. It’s worth repeating that 27 million tonnes of grain left the Port of Vancouver in 2018, and that’s just grain. Animal products, fertilizer and animal feed also flow through the port in increasing volume.
The last stop in Canada’s agricultural supply chain is ports of exit. If those ports can’t handle it, the nation’s economy and farmers’ livelihoods suffer. “When I first started in this business 35 years ago, everyone believed we had lots of room and capacity, that we’d never run out,” says Mills. “Twenty years ago, when trade with Asia started to increase, we ran into significant black eyes in terms of congestion.” He recalls a severe weather event that resulted in major backups at the port and the port’s subsequent inability to deal with the volume of goods that needed to move.
“That was an eye-opening experience where everyone realized something had to be done,” he says. “We asked ourselves, what do we need, how do we deploy resources to make sure this never happens again.” That’s where the serious modelling began — something unique to the Port of Vancouver that no other port in North America did — and capacity building began.
“The port authority invests in overall capacity,” says Mills. And that sparked the interest of private companies. “Almost every agricultural company (at the Port of Vancouver) has had an upgrade or expansion in the last few years,” he says. “There are two brand new grain terminals and a retrofit of a bulk wood chip terminal into an agri-product facility.” These companies invested because they realized the capacity was there and they could get their products to market.
Mills says that modelling continues, giving the port authority the data and metrics they need to understand the health of the gateway and where improvements should be made. “Where does the next million tonnes of growth come from? We need to be thinking five, 10 years from now,” he says. And they are.
Capacity and efficiency are part of the overall effort to keep the Port of Vancouver successful. Success is also measured by being a good neighbour to the 16 communities that border the port, including measures to keep dust and noise at a minimum and alleviating traffic woes from truck and train movements while protecting the health of the water and air.
In his decades with the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority, Mills has seen a lot of change and it’s been, well, thrilling. “From where it was when I started and where it is now is so impressive,” he says, adding that port authorities from around the world come to see what Vancouver is doing and how they do it then take those lessons home. “The process is ongoing. We’re already looking at the next generation of investment.” FF