Anne Murray: Billion-dollar boondoggle? Port infrastructure upgrades need accountability

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      Billions of dollars are being spent on container port expansion at Deltaport, despite stagnation in container traffic. Many of these funds are public money. Officials at Port Metro Vancouver claim that future growth will justify the current exponential expansion, yet they have failed to demonstrate the urgency for such a huge public investment. Deltaport, Canada’s largest container port, is currently operating at only 56-percent capacity. At a time of financial constraint for many families, it is reasonable to expect accountability from federal and provincial leaders regarding both the need and the speed of these projects. Instead, developments are being fast-tracked, with minimal public discussion or consultation, and inadequate environmental oversight.

      The latest public contribution is the $50 million that Premier Christy Clark announced in September for yet another rail corridor upgrade to Deltaport. Her choice of spending may not jibe well with families struggling with education, health care, and housing costs. Nor will it please those concerned with the escalating loss of agricultural land or the rapid degradation of the environment. The rail corridor is part of a long string of past and projected upgrades to Deltaport, one of Port Metro Vancouver’s three port areas. Upgrades include $200 million for the “Deltaport Terminal, Road and Rail Improvement Project”, of which the provincial contribution is part; $307 million for the “Roberts Bank Rail Corridor Program”; more than $1 billion for the South Fraser Perimeter Road, which is still under construction; $400 million for the completed Third Berth construction; and a projected $2 billion for the proposed Terminal 2, which would double the size of the existing port and is at the “pre-consultation” stage. Canada’s Pacific Gateway project is a consortium of federal, provincial, port, and transportation interests encompassing all port activities including bulk shipping. By 2020, this project will have spent a further $12 billion on port, rail, and road infrastructure connecting Canada to Asia, with a goal of investing $15.6 billion.

      The average citizen will pay heavily for years for these infrastructure developments and yet see little return for their dollar. The construction of Deltaport on Roberts Bank has caused massive environmental effects. Rare marine wildlife, such as orcas, internationally significant numbers of migratory birds, and Fraser salmon populations, have all been affected by degradation and loss of habitat. Air, noise, and light pollution have all increased. Habitat mitigation and compensation have been inadequate or not followed up on project after project. At the local level, residents of Delta are undergoing disruption to their community and the huge loss of good quality farmland. An increase in the number of trucks on roads, bridges, and through the Massey tunnel have meant misery for commuters throughout the Lower Mainland, a problem unlikely to be alleviated by the South Fraser Perimeter Road. Construction is not the only issue: the introduction of foreign trade zones into B.C., proposed as part of the Gateway initiative, surely requires some public discussion. Few dissenting voices for these massive infrastructure expenditures are heard among federal and provincial politicians, other than Delta’s two MLAs, Vicki Huntington and Guy Gentner, who have asked questions in the legislature.

      Port Metro Vancouver’s “Container Capacity Improvement Program”, encompassing the transportation and port upgrades, will more than double its container handling capacity. Yet, despite the industry’s optimistic projections of high growth through the coming decades, container volume at Deltaport is not increasing. Even if the world economic situation improves, other factors, such as the opening of the Northwest Passage and the widening of the Panama Canal, could affect demand. Prince Rupert’s port is also open for business, offering a competitive alternative. Demographic and public attitude changes can shift markets in unexpected ways. There is now much stronger interest in locally grown food and a greater understanding of the impacts of large developments on environmental sustainability. On what basis are federal and provincial governments supporting and fast tracking Deltaport’s exponential growth? The GDP and jobs provided are not exceptional compared with other employment sectors, yet the amount of critical oversight seems to be considerably less.

      The “Roberts Bank Rail Corridor Program” is currently undergoing a screening environmental assessment. The public were given a scant two weeks—completely inadequate time for the task—to comment on the description and scope. Public consultation meetings are to be held in late 2011 and will only address mitigation and compensation, not whether the project should proceed. In a classic example of the fox watching the henhouse, the federal government has delegated the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act in ports to the port authorities. The environmental assessment for the rail corridor, and for all other Deltaport infrastructure developments, should rightly be conducted by an independent review panel. These projects are clearly part of one overall plan to industrialize the Fraser River estuary, and the cumulative environmental affects must be assessed. Instead, by splitting the projects, an independent review has been avoided in favour of less rigorous environmental assessments.

      Enormous projects with multi-jurisdictional scope and funding are challenging for the public to address. Yet it is these large, landscape-changing initiatives that require the most diligent public oversight, the greatest political and financial accountability, and the most rigorous environmental screening. We should insist on this for every component of the whole Pacific Gateway program.

      Anne Murray is a writer and naturalist, and the author of two books on the Fraser River delta—Tracing Our Past: A Heritage Guide to Boundary Bay and A Nature Guide to Boundary Bay—both available at bookstores and from Nature Guides B.C.

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      26 Comments

      Nic Slater

      Nov 22, 2011 at 6:43pm

      An apt title for sure. "Billion-dollar Boondoggle?" "...need accountability." It also explains what is at stake and why there is "no" accountability! The Gateway Port project is not about what our National economy needs, it is about how much $ can be made by <a href="https://secure.boardoftrade.com/imispublic/Core/Events/eventdetails.aspx... entities in our society</a> and how they have to hide behind unaccountable Gov't Agencies like <a href="http://www.bcbusinessonline.ca/profiles-and-spotlights/people/robin-silv... Metro Vancouver (PMV) and CEO Robin Silvester</a>. who said recently:

      <blockquote>“Agriculture is emotionally important, but economically [of] relatively low importance to the Lower Mainland. And in terms of food security, [it] is almost meaningless for the Lower Mainland.”
</blockquote>

      The truth, is that the Gateway Project of expanding our Ports, makes no business sense. So says <a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=smRo7UFUuwM">Jeff Rubin, the award winning CIBC Chief Economist</a>. I sometimes wish he were wrong, but the evidence is clear.

      Denise

      Nov 22, 2011 at 7:12pm

      Anne Murray is a great writer, as I thoroughly enjoyed her book "Tracing Our Past: A Heritage Guide to Boundary Bay" it should be required reading in all Canadian schools!

      Otto Langer

      Nov 22, 2011 at 8:37pm

      Port Metro Vancouver is like a cancer - a growth that is out of control. It will stress growth at any cost and when multiple development agencies and corporations function in a likewise manner, the disease will eventually undermine future generations of life on this planet and like a cancer will kill the organism upon which it grows. In this case the first victim will be the Fraser River Estuary and its vast populations of fish and wildlife and then the delta region and that affects many global livability considerations. It eventually will also undermine the sustainability of future generations as the grandiose port plans are based on the over exploitation of our resources for the short term profits of society and major corporations without any real consideration of the needs and aspirations of future generations. This attitude is characterized by arrogance and a good dose of ignorance of environmental and social responsibility and sustainability. This myopic thinking was recently espoused by the Port's chief executive officer when he was quoted as saying the farmland of the Lower Fraser Valley was of emotional value and that it was of little real economic or food production value. Its very sad to see such an unbalanced industrial attitude take a new root in this present era. Some 20 to 30 years ago our society seemed ready to take a more proactive and enlightened view of the value and the need to better protect our environment and local food production capacity. The Stephen Harper and the Provincial Liberal government must be held responsible for their lack of planning for a sustainable future. The lack of proactive protection of our environment alone can assure another step in the undermining of the foundations for the future survival of healthy and diverse ecosystems and life on this planet.

      monty/that'sme

      Nov 22, 2011 at 8:51pm

      Excellent article. First rate writing and research. Too bad this story will never appear in the 2 south Delta papers!

      Shirley in Delta

      Nov 22, 2011 at 8:55pm

      Very concise and to the point. So many have been fighting this for sooo many years. The current government is very clear in it's direction. However, it really begs the question (outside of MLAs Gentner & Huntington) as to what is the position of the opposition? Delta has a right to know.

      Debbie McBride

      Nov 22, 2011 at 9:55pm

      Thank you Anne for continuiing to bring attention to this made for Liberal friends project. There are rumblings in the US about the unfair advantage our government expenditures contribute to the port. Vancouver Ports are corporate welfare recipients and it is the public who will end up eating the costs of this unwise expansion. However, as the building of Mirabel Airport in Quebec showed us, government largesse knows no bounds when it's taxpayers money being used to enrich the good friends of government.
      We need to fight this travesty with as much vigor and commitment as the pipelines are being fought.

      Eliza Olson

      Nov 22, 2011 at 11:10pm

      No wonder BC is tanking and there is no money for the things that matter. Like BC "families."

      Evil Eye

      Nov 23, 2011 at 7:31am

      The Supper Port expansion in Delta and the Gateway projects are based on fraudulent planning, by bureaucrats who want to spend the taxpayer's money.

      There is no better legal way to siphon off taxpayers monies to friends in the government by building over-engineered mega projects. Gateway, SkyTrain, the retractable roof at the puff ball, all the same massively over-engineered to enrich government cronies.

      The farce will continue because no one dares stop the financial grave-train.

      monty/that'sme

      Nov 23, 2011 at 8:16am

      When the middle aged and seniors wake up to what is happening, then shart to SHOUT ( as the younger folks at the Occupy sites are doing) then maybe we can effect change.
      Alas, the MainStreamMedia have brainwashed the public with nonsense about these sites. Where are the politicians meeting with
      these protesters, learning their point of view? Where are the journalists from the Sun, Province or Global doing in-depth interviews other than 30 second photo-ops?
      Alas, too many seniors neither read or watch the news.
      Charlie, let's have more of these TELL IT LIKE IT IS stories.

      Joan Green

      Nov 23, 2011 at 8:35am

      This article is bang on. We are left with one question: who is benefiting? Someone, somewhere, is making a pile of money here. More than one someone. Who are they? I hope they can be identified and exposed.