By Keith Norbury

A B.C. government pledge to establish a corridor for heavy loads is being greeted as a positive development by members of a group promoting Vancouver as a gateway for project cargo. Todd Stone, the province’s Transportation Minister, announced in March a 10-year $2.5 billion transportation plan called B.C. on the Move. It includes a pledge to work with industry to expand highway corridors for heavy loads, upgrade 10 major bridges, and introduce a new automated online permitting system.

“There’s a whole series of initiatives, but if you dig down into some of the more detailed information attached to it, they have effectively announced that they will be producing a pre-approved corridor for project cargo from the Vancouver gateway,” said Doug Mills, Senior Account representative for bulk and breakbulk cargo for Port Metro Vancouver.

Mr. Mills is also a member of an hoc project cargo working group that has for the last two years been promoting Port Metro Vancouver as a gateway for trucking project cargo into Alberta and northern B.C. Also represented on the group are the port’s two breakbulk terminals — Fraser Surrey Docks, and Western Stevedoring’s Lynnterm in North Vancouver — and the B.C. Trucking Association.

The project cargo working group has been fighting a perception in the shipping industry that B.C. highways cannot accommodate oversize loads. The province also has a well-deserved reputation for a clunky permitting system that is time-consuming and costly.

“It’s really a good news story on our end,” said Greg Kolesniak, Director of Policy for the B.C. Trucking Association, who pointed out that the recommendation for a 125-tonne corridor came from the BCTA.

Pre-approved 125-tonne corridor recommended

While noting that the mention is “just a little blurb” on page 5 of the B.C. on the Move document, Mr. Kolesniak said it shows that the B.C. government “is coming to the table.” Specifically, the document’s priorities include working with industry “to expand the number of provincial highway corridors pre-approved for the transport of 85- to 125-metric-tonne loads.” The goal, Mr. Kolesniak said, is to have the 125-tonne corridor rolled out this summer. “Hopefully, if everything lines up correctly,” Mr. Kolesniak said. However, he cautioned that the ministry hasn’t set a timetable for the announcement. And he didn’t wish to be seen as pre-empting any announcement by Transportation Minister Todd Stone on the matter. “We’re basically in the process of making sure we’re getting the work done to get to that point,” Mr. Kolesniak said. The Ministry did not respond by deadline to written questions from Canadian Sailings about the initiatives, despite repeated promises from communications staff that it would. Nor did it make anyone available for an interview.

Other priorities outlined in B.C. on the Move include planning and delivering “upgrades to 10 major bridges throughout the Interior and northern British Columbia,” and “introduction of a new automated online permitting system (that) will provide truckers the ability to obtain permits 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with no wait times.”

Mr. Mills said the project cargo working group is still working with the Transportation Ministry on quick approvals of permits within three to five business days along the proposed 125-tonne corridor. As it stands, applicants have to re-apply, and re-do the engineering each time they want to transport oversize cargo on that route – even though loads of identical or very similar dimensions and weights have been approved for that route in the past. That process is time-consuming and cost tens of thousands of dollars, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars, Mr. Mills said. “We’re now engaging in the process of pre-engineering that route,” Mr. Mills said. “And we’ve done it on the basis of the inventory of trucking equipment that would be used to move those heavy and large pieces.”

Height will remain limiting factor

The idea is that the B.C. government would have that engineering work on file, be able to compare an application with what has already been pre-approved for that route, “and from that rubber-stamp it,” Mr. Mills said. “It would be basically a 24-hour turnaround, with no engineering costs attached to it.”

A southern route, which follows the Coquihalla Highway for much of its length, is more accommodating for larger loads than the Highway 16 corridor out of Prince Rupert, which has more overhead obstructions, he said. The southern pinch points are well-known. They include the Great Bear Snowshed on the Coquihalla and a pair of railway overpasses at the junction of highways 5 and 16 near Tête-Jaune Cache. The snowshed has a maximum northbound clearance of 5.01 metres, according to a height clearance tool on the DriveBC website. The Tête-Jaune Cache overpasses have clearances of 4.88 metres.

“You’re running into clearance restrictions at anything over 4.88 metres on both routes,” Mr. Kolesniak said. “Which one of the two is less problematic in terms of pushing that height envelope, that remains to be seen.” The 125-tonne corridor “would certainly help to expedite the permit approval process within the dimension envelope of 4.88 metres and five metres in width which currently exists,” Mr. Kolesniak said.

Height is the limiting factor and the BCTA has been pushing to have the 4.88 metre limit pushed up to 5.33 metres, to bring it in line with the height restriction of the Peace River region, Mr. Kolesniak said. “The ideal height would be a minimum of 5.5 metres,” Mr. Kolesniak said. “Anything higher than that — just looking at the height clearance restrictions— (and) you’re really going to be hitting pretty much every single overhead obstruction on the highway.” He did note later that removing any obstruction is possible, though, if enough money is thrown at it. However, he added that the BCTA is “not prepared to recommend to the Ministry to do something which is going to blow the budget.”

Permit surcharge being considered

In fact, BCTA is even proposing that industry help pay for infrastructure upgrades on the corridor. One method would be a permit surcharge on oversize loads. That would be similar to a surcharge that Alberta implemented on its high-load corridor. Mr. Kolesniak said BCTA members have endorsed a surcharge in principle. But members would have to be canvassed again once the dollar amount is determined to see if they are still in support.

Exactly what the charge might be is unknown. But hypothetically it would have to be less than the savings a shipper would realize by switching to the shorter B.C. route compared with the established project cargo route from Houston, Texas. According to Google maps, Houston to Fort McMurray is 3,906 kilometres — more than twice 1,588-km distance between Vancouver and Fort McMurray.

“You also have to provide some an incentive for people to make the move,” Mr. Kolesniak said. “It can’t just be a break-even proposition.” Nevertheless, the first step would be to identify measures to open up the corridors “without actually having to dump a whole bunch of money into them,” he said. The next step would be to identity high-priority items that would address bottlenecks at a relatively low cost.

For about the last 18 months, Port Metro Vancouver has posted on its website weight and dimensions guidelines for project cargo. It shows, for example, a 115.3 tonne limit for B.C. oversize-overweight permits. Mr. Mills said that the chart will be updated shortly to show that much of what currently requires a permit will be pre-approved for up to 125 tonnes.

Height limits aren’t going to change, though. At present, 5.33 metres (or 17 feet six inches) is the maximum height for B.C. highways. However, heights greater than the maximum can theoretically be subjected to an extraordinary load approval process, which depends on overhead clearances on the specific route. (Weights greater than 115.3 tonnes are also possible subject to bridge engineering approval).

Mr. Mills said about 90 per cent of project cargo can move through the Vancouver gateway to Alberta and northern B.C. already. “The opportunity to move cargo through the gateway was not fully understood in the past,” he said. “And the description that we put on the website has attracted a lot of attention (from shippers) because they’re recognizing there is a value proposition to moving it through this gateway, even if you have to split up parts of the shipment.”

Unfortunately, Mr. Kolesniak pointed out, some project cargo shipments arrive as an “all or nothing proposition.” In such cases, Vancouver would probably lose out entirely. However, he is still optimistic that Vancouver can attract about 80 per cent of Alberta-bound project cargo within the existing dimensional envelope. Since the project cargo working group began its efforts, a dedicated heavy-lift carrier, Singapore-headquartered AAL, has begun calling at the port and bringing in project cargoes on a regular basis, Mr. Mills said. The port has also been contacted by three other carriers – “it wouldn’t be appropriate to mention them by name” – also interested in making regular calls with project cargo.

Members of the project cargo working group plan to attend this October’s Breakbulk Americas conference in Houston to once again promote Vancouver as a project cargo gateway. “And our main message is going to be that the gateway is now open for project cargoes,” Mr. Mills said.