Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Canadian ports losing business to U.S.

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The Conference Board of Canada has released a report that says that long line ups at the border are the reason that BC ports are failing to take business from the US ports.

One reason is congestion at border crossings, according to Dalhousie University transportation professor Mary Brooks, the author of the Conference Board of Canada report. Another is government red tape that is causing overseas shippers to take their business elsewhere, she said.

“There has not been the same investment in border infrastructure as would be dictated by the increased growth in traffic,” she said.

As well, tighter security has put more emphasis on inspection.

Now, just to be absolutely clear about this, these arrangements have nothing to do with governments north of the border. Federal or provincial. Border delays southbound are caused by US border officials.

Furthermore, while the agreement may be called “North American Free Trade” we do not have that, and it is very unlikely we ever will. If you look at other places where borders between countries are being taken down – Europe being the obvious example – there is a huge difference between what has been happening there and what has been happening here. And it is a lot more deep seated than the tourette’s “9/11” which gets inserted into every cross border discussion.

The softwood lumber dispute is, I think, the best illustration of how free trade does not work for Canada. The protectionist instinct in Washington is as strong as it ever was. Free trade that works to increase the access of American controlled multinationals is one thing: trade which demonstrates that another country has an advantage is something else. If its our resources they want, better stand back or get trampled.

The Gateway assumes that Vancouver (and I suppose , grudgingly, Prince Rupert too) can compete with US ports. I don’t think so, Tim. They did not lie down and let us take all their Alaska cruise ship traffic: Chinese container ships, or Japanese car carriers, will not be any different. I think that before we spend any more money on this venture, we should ask ourselves if the Americans are ready to play nicely with others. Their economy is looking very shaky right now. There is a real prospect that there will be a recession there, following the real estate collapse and the credit crunch. Indeed, that is being cited as one of the reasons why US retail prices are notably lower than here

“U.S. retailers have been slashing prices and bleeding margins just to hang on to any degree of market share because of all the economic issues and the fear that they’re heading into a recession,”

Derek Nighbor, national affairs vice-president of the Retail Council of Canada

( from another CBC story today)

The first instinct of any US politician is to look after the interests of his local constituents: even if in theory he supports that idea of free trade, that support is conditional – as long as it doesn’t hurt me electorally. And I think the stevedores and teamsters will have a lot more pull in Washington in future, and the true believers in Hayek and free markets will be a lot less influential.

Written by Stephen Rees

October 23, 2007 at 6:27 pm

Posted in Gateway

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2 Responses

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  1. Any idea what proportion of goods coming into Vancouver and Prince Rupert stay within in Canada and how much is shipped to the US?

    It does seem ridiculously foolish to compete with American ports for the shipping of good ultimately destined for the USA. The border is a huge bottleneck and an expanded Deltaport doesn’t do anything to solve that.

    Isn’t Los Angeles expanding its port capacity right now?

    (P.S. If you google “los angeles port expansion” you’re the 6th result).


    October 24, 2007 at 2:53 pm

  2. I had a look at the Port’s statistics report and it does not discuss the origins and destinations of traffic in terms of the land side – just the countries the ships go to. Stu Ramsey’s report to Burnaby Council talks about how much moves by road and rail – but again does not discuss how much travels south of the border. My suspicion would be “not much” since a lot of the containerised cargo seems to head for distribution centres owned by Canadian retailers (Canadian Tire, HBC and so on) and they do not have much presence south of the 49th. Recently rail fans have got excited to see BNSF coal trains bringing US coal to Neptune Terminal on the North Shore for export. Apparently this is very unusual. I suppose someone knows where those double stack container trains go to after they leave here and both CN and CP have extensive networks in the US

    Los Angeles is spending a lot of money upgrading the Alameda corridor – a multiple track grade separated rail line into the port – to reduce the impact of trucking on the local community. Contrast Roberts Bank which has only one track connecting it to the network.

    Stephen Rees

    October 25, 2007 at 7:52 am

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