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Shippers will circumvent port truckers strike: SFU prof

A truck is loaded with a container at Deltaport. Hundreds of container truckers are refusing to work over longer waits at port terminals. - Port Metro Vancouver
A truck is loaded with a container at Deltaport. Hundreds of container truckers are refusing to work over longer waits at port terminals.
— image credit: Port Metro Vancouver

A strike by container truckers likely won't quickly disrupt the Lower Mainland economy or reduce the availability of retail goods, according to an urban studies professor at SFU.

Peter Hall said more locally bound containers could be redirected to terminals at Seattle/Tacoma and trucked north, or be moved by trains to Alberta, unpacked, and the goods hauled back to B.C. by long-haul trucks.

"We don't lose the cargo, we'd just get it by another route and we get it later," Hall said. "The whole point about supply chains is they build in flexibility."

Several hundred independent truckers halted work last week and up to 400 more unionized drivers are expected to strike starting Thursday over port terminal wait times and compensation for delays.

Hall said alternate shipping methods would mean higher costs for cargo customers and lost earnings for trans-loading facilities as well as the striking truckers, and result in a major cargo backlog over time.

The core problem in the dispute is that truckers are paid per container delivered and worsening congestion – either at the port terminals or on the roads – has made it harder for them to complete enough daily trips to earn a living.

One partial solution may be extended loading hours at container terminals and the port has agreed to a pilot project.

But it's not yet clear what specific hours will be tested or whether the scheme will be viable.

Metro Vancouver cities have strongly supported longer port hours in the hopes more trucks might move at night and reduce road traffic congestion at peak times.

Hall said  Port Metro Vancouver could go further to encourage that shift, possibly by charging truckers a fee for port access during the day which then finances a subsidy to load at night or on weekends.

He also cautioned that longer terminal hours may not have much effect if other destinations – intermodal yards, warehouses or customers – are closed at night to deliveries.

"It's not going to solve all of our traffic problems," he said.

B.C. Trucking Association president Louise Yako said an access fee like what Hall describes – similar to one in use in Los Angeles – might also help subsidize the terminals to remain open late and cover their extra costs.

She said terminals say they only have enough work to justify very limited late openings, so a subsidy is being considered so they could deliver the consistent late hours that other industry operators need to justify their own late shifts.

Yako said the use of two-tiered port access fees in Los Angeles has been "almost too successful" in encouraging night hauling.

"They have skewed the traffic to nights," she said. "The last hour or two in the day you don't see a truck [on the roads]. They're all waiting in line to pay the lower fee starting at 6 p.m."

The BCTA argues any major reform of the port access system should set performance standards related to loadings per hour and maximum wait times for truckers that terminals must meet or be penalized.

An eight-point agreement reached between the BCTA and Port Metro Vancouver also spells out other reforms but Yako said drivers must return to work before they can be implemented.

"Right now, the stumbling block is the harassment, the violence and the intimidation that some of the more militant owner-operators are using to intimidate the other owner-operators and employee-drivers from going to work."

The port is terminating the port access permits of about 40 protesting drivers blamed for threats or interference with others and will offer trucking firms new licences to add trucks to offset the reduced capacity.

According to Hall, there would be advantages to paying drivers by the hour instead of per container, he said.

Hall said truckers would take fewer risks on the road and they could be directed to make shipments at night and use toll bridges instead of free crossings.

He noted many container trucks avoid the tolled Port Mann Bridge to save money and instead clog up other routes.

"If it saves a driver 20 minutes to go over the Port Mann, but 20 minutes isn't enough for him to do another turn per day, it means nothing to him," Hall noted.

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