By Keith Norbury

The B.C. government’s announcement in January of new project cargo corridor permits falls well short of what representatives of Port of Vancouver and the B.C. Trucking Association (BCTA) have been awaiting for several years. Both Dave Earle, BCTA president, and Doug Mills, a senior account representative with Vancouver Fraser Port Authority, expressed some satisfaction with the narrow scope of the announcement. “But,” as Mr. Mills put it, “there are several more steps that are absolutely required before I would be out there making any announcements myself.”

The January announcement was for project cargo corridor permits for commercial vehicles travelling between two Greater Vancouver terminals — Fraser Surrey Docks and Lynnterm East Gate — and where highway 16 crosses the Alberta border. Trucks using routes from those two terminals “are no longer required to complete the traditional extraordinary-load approval process,” said a news release from the B.C. Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure. The new permits apply to commercial vehicles of eight to 13 axles that have a gross combined weight of up to 125,000 kilograms, overall height of up to 4.88 metres, overall width of up to five metres, and overall length of up to 50 metres.

That in itself is something Mr. Earle said the BCTA is happy about “because any time we see government taking steps to streamline any administrative process, it’s a welcome improvement and a welcome change. This has been a long time in the works and a lot of people have spent a lot of time on it.”

Incomplete corridor

Mr. Mills had a similar reaction: “We’re actually happy with what the proposed process was, but this is not the entire process. They’re announcing an open corridor that hasn’t been fully completed yet.” One problem is the corridor only applies to cargoes moving to and from those two terminals. “If it’s coming from anywhere but the port or going to anywhere but to the highway route that has been designated, it falls outside of those parameters,” Mr. Mills said.

Mr. Earle noted, for example, that a load that otherwise meets the size requirements for pre-approval but that originates from another port, such as Everett, Wash., cannot qualify for the streamlined permit. “I can’t access the project cargo parameters, I have to go through the entire process,” Earle said.

As the Ministry noted in its announcement, “Other loads of this size require an extraordinary-load approval, which can take up to 12 business days.” Mr. Earle said he has told Ministry officials that such restrictions don’t make any sense.

“To me you streamlined it, but you streamlined it for a very, very specific component of the moves that are done,” Mr. Earle said. “There are lots of other moves that use that corridor that would fit within the envelope that don’t start and don’t end on that corridor.”

The Ministry responded by stating that “Extraordinary loads are routinely approved to move all over the province. The Project Cargo Corridors are unique in that they offer larger pre-approvals for weight than many other routes. The chosen corridor is the one that was requested by the trucking association and the ports. Having said that, we are monitoring use of the new corridors to see if there would be value in opening up similar pre-approvals on other routes in the future. Except for the portions of the corridors that are under municipal jurisdiction, carriers are also able to take advantage of only part of the pre-approved corridor under a one year trial allowing use of partial routes approved for extraordinary load travel.”

Even the streamlined permits are nevertheless complex. Routes from the terminals to the Trans-Canada Highway vary depending on load height and axle configurations. However, once on Highway 1, the route proceeds to highways 3, 5 and ultimately 16 before reaching Alberta. “This is not what we were expecting,” Mr. Mills said of the province’s recent announcement. “This is a part of what we were expecting. But there are still significant milestones that we had scoped into the project that we haven’t met yet. And my concern is for users of the transportation supply chain to have confidence in being able to utilize it.”

Significant frustrations

In a Dec. 6 letter to deputy minister Grant Main, Mr. Earle pointed out several other “significant” frustrations and concerns the association has with the Ministry’s lack of leadership “in addressing the challenges associated with BC’s permit system, particularly in light of significant non-compliance by oversize vehicles.”

In an interview with Canadian Sailings, Mr. Earle said the association doesn’t have a good sense of how often frustrated shippers are deciding to forgo a permit altogether and hire companies that are willing to take the risks to move cargos illegally. “Both we and the Ministry believe it’s significantly high,” he said. “Many of our members are telling us frequently, or were telling us frequently, of stories when the delays in getting permits just led to people saying, ‘Forget it,’ and just going to moving on their own and taking their chances.”

Another big issue for the BCTA is the amount of red tape strangling the trucking industry in B.C. He noted in his letter to Mr. Main that B.C.’s permit system has about 800 pages of regulations. Alberta’s permit regulations are about as third as voluminous, he said. And Ontario gets by with a 30-page manual and “sees almost 10 times the activity” as B.C. does. “Streamlining processes is important,” Mr. Earle said. “But the bigger issue in our mind is why do we have the process at all?” The Ministry responded that “Ontario’s equivalent to our Commercial Transport Procedures Manual is 231 pages long (the VW&D Limits in Ontario Public Guide), and they also have circulars and notices and a superload escort guide that is based on BC’s Pilot Car Load Movement Guidelines, so the volume of their publications appears to be similar to BC’s.”

Mr. Earle was nevertheless effusive in his praise for Ministry staff and their hard work. He also noted that the Ministry has been preoccupied with many issues of late, such as responding to a 2018 B.C. Auditor General’s report on commercial vehicle safety that found such vehicles were disproportionately involved in fatal collisions, as well as the pending implementation of electronic data loggers. However, he certainly left the impression Ministry personnel have been spinning their wheels.

Table too crowded

“It’s just there’s so much on the table because we’ve had so much pent up for so long that now, as the events outstrip and outpace their ability to make decisions, they’re forced into situations where they’re not able to be proactive,” Mr. Earle said.

For several years, going back to as early as 2013, an ad hoc project cargo committee has worked on and off to lobby the B.C. government to streamline the permitting processes for large loads as well as improve the infrastructure to enable them to cross the province. The committee members have included Mr. Mills as well as representatives of the BCTA, Fraser Surrey Docks, and Lynnterm operator Western Stevedoring. Their work has also involved consultations with railways, freight forwarders, logistics engineering companies, and resource project proponents.

“It still exists on paper,” Mr. Mills said of the committee. “We have not met for some time because this particular issue has presented a bit of a wall for us.”

The committee also takes the view that the BCTA is best positioned to address the concerns because its members are the ones who have to deal with the regulations. However, the obstacles that truckers face in moving large loads from the coast to points inland do have implications for the ports and terminal operators. One difficulty that remains is that even if B.C.’s highways and the current permitting system can accommodate the vast majority of oversized loads, it still might not be enough to make the port of Vancouver an attractive option for shippers. That’s because the largest load is often part of a shipment of multiple pieces destined for a particular project. “Ninety-nine per cent of it is going to fit in the corridor. However, if the hundredth piece does not fit through the corridor, you might lose the entire shipment through another alternative gateway,” Mr. Mills said.

Too rigid and risk averse

That alternative is often the port of Houston, Texas, which has the benefit of a highway system through the Great Plains into Alberta that doesn’t have the pinch points of the highways carved through the mountains of B.C. But the problems involve much more than just the insufficient clearances of snow sheds on the Coquihalla Highway, for example. Mr. Mills noted that the application process for permits was supposed to be a fully digitized online system with a 48-hour turnaround. But as it stands, shippers still have to secure permits through each municipality along a route, he said. “So there’s a whole bunch of pieces that were missed out of the announcement,” Mr. Mills said. Also, the extraordinary-load approval process — which Mr. Mills said is necessary “to ensure we don’t bring down bridges” — is out of date and “way too cumbersome” compared with those of other provinces. “We’ve been promised a lot of action on this, but have seen none,” Mr. Mills added. The Ministry responded that “if the BC Trucking Association and the ports would like to suggest work on an additional corridor, we would be happy to speak with them about the specifics of the new request. In addition, as always, our Structural Engineers add to the extensive list of routes pre-approved for travel at up to 85,000 kg as time and opportunity allow.”

Mr. Earle noted that “there were real honest to goodness” technical difficulties, and it wasn’t that no one was paying attention to them. “And we do have unique challenges in British Columbia because of our topography,” he said. However, the province hasn’t brought the sense of urgency to the issue needed “to bring it across the line in a timely fashion.” He said the Ministry needs to step back and “really figure out what it is exactly that we’re trying to regulate and what harm we’re trying to prevent.” As it stands, the permitting structure in place is so rigid and risk averse “that it’s very difficult to move things along quickly,” Mr. Earle said.

The Ministry’s challenge is that it isn’t allocating the resources and people to addressing the obstacles facing the movement of oversized cargo — in part because it is dealing with so many other issues, such as speed limiters, which has been a preoccupation for 14 years. But until the government decides to make project cargo a priority, Mr. Earle said, “my worry is that we will continue to see items and issues drift, we will continue to see widespread non-compliance, and we will continue to see other ports eat our lunch.”