Courting Pacific Trade on Canada’s West Coast
PRINCE RUPERT, BC—Crossing Prince Rupert Harbor, the first visible locals aren’t people. Rather, they’re boats.
It starts with the Digby Island Ferry—the only route into town from the local airport, which is built on an island.
Next are the trawlers, tied closer to shore, used by generations of residents who made their living in Prince Rupert’s historic fishing industry.
Then there are the water taxis, sea planes and other vessels.
But only one boat docked here rises to make an impression against the cedar-covered mountains beside the harbor. The name on its bow reads Hanjin Mar, a container ship. It arrived here the previous night from the southeastern tip of South Korea.
At 820 feet long, the massive ship dwarfs nearly everything in this remote town. Yet local residents have gotten accustomed to receiving visits from the Hanjin Mar and other giant vessels. It’s all part of one of the world’s most fascinating shipping experiments.
In 2007, a container terminal opened in Prince Rupert, a town of 12,000. To many in the global shipping community, the move seemed ambitious, if not foolish. Container terminals are usually built amid major cities.
Yet, Prince Rupert port officials believed they had something unique to offer—their port was closer to Asia than any other port in North America.
“Our niche is speed,” says Ken Veldman, director of public affairs for the Prince Rupert Port Authority. “This is the shortest entry point, and that’s our main advantage.”
According to Veldman, shipping to Prince Rupert shaves up to three days off the trip across the Pacific Ocean. That speed advantage also applies to the coal, grain, and wood pellet shipments that pass through other terminals at Prince Rupert.
Shipping here has roughly quadrupled over the past eight years. Prince Rupert even attracted the attention of Dubai’s DP World, which purchased the port’s container terminal last year. An expansion project at the container terminal is underway.
By 2024, leaders expect port traffic across all Port Rupert terminals to quadruple again to more than 75 million tons annually.
Quickly, this once-struggling fishing town has found its place on the front line of the booming trade business between Asia and North America.
“There were a lot of skeptics. What we do doesn’t exist anywhere else,” says Jim Rushton, who manages the container terminal at Prince Rupert. “We’re still a small player, but the model is proven.”
While Prince Rupert and the Canadian west coast are far from the Show-Me State, what’s happening here is very relevant to Missouri, which has rail connections to Canadian ports.
Canada is likely to become even more relevant as the country continues to develop its Asian trade infrastructure. On one hand, the country has invested $3.5 billion to improve its Asian trade infrastructure in western Canada, with some of that funding coming through public/private partnerships.
“We believe firmly in leveraging private sector funding to make taxpayer investments go further,” says Lisa Raitt, who was Canadian Minister of Transport under the previous prime minister.
This work is visible in Vancouver. The city—which hosted the 2010 Winter Olympics—sits beside the Burrard Inlet, where 27 terminals comprise what Port Metro Vancouver calls the most diversified port in North America. Anticipating growth, officials are planning $17 billion in trade traffic improvements by 2025.
One of the areas already benefiting from the increased infrastructure spending is Vancouver’s massive Westshore coal terminal, which ships more than 33 million tons of coal annually. The terminal is located on a man-made island, where mountains of US and Canadian coal wait to be shipped across the globe. Here, recently completed work has helped eliminate rail crossings, allowing trucks and trains to stream in and out without blocking each other’s paths.
All across Vancouver, similar plans are in the works to ensure the region’s infrastructure can handle both the city’s growing shipping business and growing population.
“You have various competing demands on that corridor,” says Thomas Kwan, project engineer with the Coordination and Policy Branch of Transport Canada’s Pacific Region office. “You have to overlay the needs of the gateway with the commuter traffic and the needs of the community.”
Missouri businesses seeking to access these shipping options would likely use what the Canadian government calls the Ontario-Quebec Continental Gateway, an international trade route composed of various modes of transportation that cut directly through Missouri.
Any route into Canada involves one significant hurdle—the border crossing. However, with business between the two nations now totaling $759 billion annually, there is ample incentive to make crossings a seamless, yet secure, process.
The 2011 Beyond the Border partnership between Canada and the United States includes joint planning of border infrastructure upgrades, including $127 million on the Canadian side and $151 million in the United States.
One of Beyond the Border’s most significant achievements was last year’s agreement to expand pre-clearance operations. Pre-clearance allows goods crossing into Canada or the United States to be checked and approved long before they arrive at the physical border.
Similar programs, such as the NEXUS trusted traveler program, have been developed for individuals who regularly cross the border.
The collaboration is apparent at the border crossings that serve the region between Seattle and Vancouver.
Thousands of commercial trucks cross the border here each day. Regional border officials praise the international efforts toward preclearance, which is intended to take the pressure off land border ports of entry.
“Pushing the borders out is one of our goals,” says Ken Williams, assistant area port director for the Blaine Service Area of the US Customs and Border Protection.
In addition to the commercial traffic, Williams and his Canadian counterpart, Daniela Evans, Pacific highway district director for the Canada Border Services Agency, must also contend with a regional community that views crossing an international border as part of the everyday routine.
Canadians in the area regularly drive to the United States to fill up their tanks with cheap gas. Conversely, US residents enjoy shopping in Canada, where currency exchange rates make almost everything—except gas—cheaper.
The friendly relationship between the two countries is memorialized at one border crossing here by the Peace Arch, a 67-foot tall monument constructed on the border line. The arch sits in a popular international park between lanes of border traffic.
Although the Peace Arch was dedicated nearly 100 years ago, the relationship between the two countries—and the desire to keep improving—is clearly as strong as ever.
“We consider ourselves as working toward the same objectives,” says Evans. “We are very proud of this partnership.”