A proposal by Port Alberni to act as a shipping hub for both Metro Vancouver and Seattle is being pitched as a way to get trucks off the road by sending containers up the Fraser River by barge.
The concept is that a $1-billion 300-acre container handling terminal would be built along the inlet at Port Alberni, where containers would be offloaded, organized and then floated on barges to destinations in the Lower Mainland and Puget Sound.
Big container ships that now sail past Alberni Inlet could stop, offload all their cargo and return to sea, cutting off three to four days of extra sailing normally spent visiting other terminals, says Alberni Port manager Zoran Knezevic.
Virtually no containers now go up the Fraser River but Knezevic said barges could readily reach the distribution centres of Walmart, Canadian Tire, Home Depot and most other major retailers that are dotted along the river in Richmond, Delta, Surrey and Coquitlam.
That would reduce the amount of trucking now required to haul containers to those centres from either Burrard Inlet or Deltaport.
"It's a much more efficient, environmentally friendly and cost-effective way to move containers," said Knezevic, who presented the idea Wednesday to Metro Vancouver directors.
He said the use of the river as a "natural highway" could reduce the one million containers that now moved by truck in the Lower Mainland each year, congesting the roads.
The concept is still in the preliminary stages and no detailed business case has been prepared.
But Knezevic said it has run into early skepticism and concern from Port Metro Vancouver officials, who fear port expansion opponents will seize on it as evidence their huge Terminal 2 container expansion proposal at Deltaport is unnecessary.
He denies the Alberni proposal is a threat to Deltaport.
"It's not competitive, we're not going to rob anybody," Knezevic said. "We are looking at doubling the number of containers coming through Port Metro Vancouver so I think they could easily complement each other."
The Alberni port's written presentation notes its "much smaller environmental impact" compared to Terminal 2.
Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie said the Alberni proposal is interesting because smaller barges can readily send goods up the river without removing the Massey Tunnel and attempting to dredge the channel deeper for big ships.
"This offers a possible opportunity to restructure the requirements we have in the Lower Mainland where we have congested roads, very high cost of land and a $3-billion project to take away the George Massey tunnel and build a bridge," Brodie said.
Peter Xotta, Port Metro Vancouver's vice-president of planning and operations, also told Metro directors the port will need to explore alternative methods of moving containers, and Port Alberni's proposal may be part of the solution.
Xotta noted terminals in Metro Vancouver have the advantage of rail access that brings containers loaded with forest products or grain, which then end up empty and perfectly positioned to take retail goods.
"We need to think about what's getting back into that container to go the other way."
Area mayors want the port to do more to extend their hours of operation, so trucks could haul more containers at night instead of clogging roads during commuting hours.
"Port Metro Vancouver is very directly and aggressively attacking this issue," Xotta said.
He cited the construction of multiple overpasses that are reducing congestion at railway level crossings.
Xotta said some night offloads do happen from port terminals but it tends not to be done with enough advance notice for destination warehouses to be open to receive at night.
He said the Terminal 2 proposal, which has now gone to public consultation, also allows for short-sea shipping options, but he confirmed the port supports the concept of removing the tunnel to expand shipping on the river.
Xotta cautioned that dredging the river deeper for shipping would be challenging due to potential implications for the environment, river hydrology and the stability of existing crossings.
Container ship approaches Deltaport to offload cargo. Photo - Port Metro Vancouver