Editorial - What Can the U.S. Learn from Canadian Ports and Their Infrastructure Projects?
We have a lot of great coverage from the Dredging Summit & Expo, hosted by the Western Dredging Association (WEDA) in Vancouver, British Columbia. It was a fantastic conference – from the unique location to the overall layout and the education program. It was really a unified conference, in a way I don’t see around the country and in other industries. We’ve covered the main speakers, the awards, and the safety and environmental commissions in this issue. Even with about nine pages of coverage, we didn’t include a lot about the individual education sessions, and not because there wasn’t anything to write about. There’s so much to learn and write about that it’s difficult to choose what sessions to attend, let alone which to include in our coverage. I have many ideas for future articles, and you should attend the conference to enjoy the education for yourself.
Through some of the main conference speakers, it was very interesting to learn about the world of dredging in Canada, and particularly the role the Canadian government plays in dredging and the operation of its ports, especially as backdrop against the U.S. model, which has seen recent criticism and struggles – the brawling over the federal budget, the backlogged waterways projects, the sometime sporadic funding stream for projects that requires annual authorization for appropriations. It should also be noted that big strides have been made in Washington for waterways infrastructure with a focus on public private partnerships, the new project authorization process via the Water Resources Reform and Development Act (WRRDA) of 2014, and even a focus on infrastructure needs from the new administration, but maybe there’s something to be learned from how they do things in Canada?
In the short time that we heard about Canadian infrastructure and dredging at the WEDA conference from Jeff Scott, CEO of Fraser Surrey Docks, and Cliff Stewart, vice president of infrastructure at the Port of Vancouver, it struck me how straightforward the planning, funding and execution seemed.
That’s not to say that our neighbors to the north have it all figured out, as Scott pointed out many of the challenges they see with regard to projects and new infrastructure and dredging are not so different from our challenges, but perhaps there is something to be learned from their simple focus and singular authority. The Canadian model operates with a long-term vision and forethought that our infrastructure programs seem to lack.
In 1998, the Canada Marine Act was passed to modernize Canada’s most important ports, establishing federal port authorities at 19 ports. One hundred and fifty smaller ports were put under the responsibility of provinces and municipalities. Thirty-four remote ports remain under the direct supervision of Transport Canada.
At the WEDA lunch session, Cliff Stewart from the Port of Vancouver talked a lot about the mission of Canada’s federal port authorities. First and foremost, they exist to facilitate Canada’s trade, but also to protect the environment and local communities. They must also be commercially viable. The Canadian federal port authorities receive no federal funds. They operate by servicing their paying users. Stewart said, technically, the port authority is an independent corporation, owned by the federal Transport Minister, and governed by a diverse group of board of directors from all levels of government, industry partners and local interests.
And the port funds all its own infrastructure needs. The Port of Vancouver contracts with a private operator (Fraser Surrey Docks) to run its dredging program in the Fraser River. To support its growth and capacity needs, the Port of Vancouver is ten years into the Terminal 2 project at Roberts Bank to create more deepwater space and port capacity.
In his talk, Stewart laid out the great need for accommodating significant increases in the port’s capacity over the next decade. Stewart has been working on this program since 2010, and he quoted the project opponent’s who are still saying, we don’t need it right now. “But we need it in a decade, and it’s already taken 10 years to get this far,” Stewart said.
Some 35,000 hours of field studies have been done, and 77 different scientists have worked on this project. Because it’s in an area with earthquakes, Stewart talked about some of the geotechnical studies that were done to assure that if the big earthquake did come, the entire project wouldn’t slip off into the abyss. The project is still about 10 years from operation, and the port doesn’t have a need for that capacity now. But it will in a decade.
Does Canada have all the answers for public infrastructure? Probably not, but it is interesting in comparison, especially in light of the divide in Washington these days over spending, and the focus on infrastructure. So U.S. port authorities are not federal entities. They are generally economically viable and support a significant amount of port infrastructure funding. They pay a user fee federal tax to the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund (HMTF). But HMTF has not been used for its intended purpose for some time, so the federal government often has trouble supporting its share of the projects through the annual budget process. The annual process also can impede long-term projects, which require annual appropriation authorizations. It may be hard to advocate for federalizing our port system. However, without the full support of the HMTF, ports are paying for their share and then some. Perhaps we would still have funding and project planning bottlenecks with federal port authorities, but the idea of self-sufficiency sounds so great.
However, Canada faces many of the same problems seen in the U.S. As I mentioned before, Jeff Scott from Fraser Surrey Docks highlighted many of the same problems that we see here today in the U.S. “As the world and port communities change and evolve, approvals are getting more difficult, the environmental standards have increased, capital is harder to justify, timelines are getting shorter, community takeover and pressure on its ports is increasing,” Scott said.
Credit should also be given to efforts made in recent years to streamline the project and permit process in the U.S. The 3x3x3 rule has challenged the Corps to cut project timelines, overall costs and administration oversight. We could do better with the funding we have, but this country also struggles to see past the line item sheet and the annual budget process.
We probably don’t want all our projects to span two decades, but in some cases that might be necessary to prepare for what’s needed. Instead, many of our ports are now wading through the long project process long after the need for more capacity was there. I was very interested to learn how they did things in Canada with regard to infrastructure and dredging, and it was fascinating to compare it to the U.S. model, in the hopes that we might learn something.