Port and Truckers Turn to Traffic Following Strike

Port Metro Vancouver traffic | BCBusiness
Lower Mainland truckers are seeking ways to spend less time in traffic and more time moving cargo.

After a bitter labour dispute, the third in 15 years, the port and its truckers have turned to the culprit: congestion

It was the eleventh-hour deal Suzanne Wentt did not expect: flanked by Unifor union president Jerry Dias and a dozen representatives of unionized and non-unionized truckers, on March 26 Premier Christy Clark held a press conference at the B.C. legislature to announce the end of the month-long work stoppage that had paralyzed Lower Mainland ports. Wentt, the owner of Indian River Transport Co., whose trucks service the ports, had not been consulted; nor, she says, had any of the dozens of other truckers she knows. While the agreement addressed the truckers’ most egregious complaints about the pre-strike system—including price cutting that led to unsustainably low pay rates—no one is sure that it will solve a lingering complaint: long wait times caused by congestion.

According to the agreement, the federal government “will take appropriate measures” to increase the trip rates that trucking companies pay owner operators by 12 per cent. Rates for drivers paid by the hour will rise to $25.13 an hour, and then $26.28 after one year. The provincial government will enforce rates via an audit system.

Sorting out exactly who will be paying whom those increased rates, however, is no simple task. Neither Port Metro Vancouver nor any level of government pays the truckers, nor are they party to collective agreements between unions and trucking companies that service the port. Truckers can be paid by the load or by the hour, belong to a union or not and drive their own trucks or someone else’s. While the majority of truckers are non-unionized and paid by the load, hundreds more fall under every intersection of those categories.

Wentt says that for companies like hers, which employ drivers or contract out to the port’s independent truckers, the new wage rates, together with a new fuel surcharge equation, mean a 20 per cent increase in costs.

While the agreement resolved the immediate labour crisis, trucking companies as well as independent owners and operators face a more intransigent long-term challenge: with the port authority expecting truck traffic to increase by 50 per cent by 2020, who can ensure that those trucks spend more time moving goods, and less time sitting idle?

Trucking times in the Lower Mainland increased 30 per cent between 1997 and 2007, the last time Transport Canada studied the problem, says Louise Yako, president of the B.C. Trucking Association. As independent operators—most of whom are paid by the load—make fewer trips and spend more time sitting idle, their earnings take a significant hit. Any factors that push down the port’s efficiency hit them the hardest.

How long truckers spend waiting at the gate is open to dispute. According to Port Metro Vancouver, congestion within the port does not often lead to significant delays: the port reports that 64 per cent of trucks wait less than an hour to pick up or drop off cargo, and less than five per cent wait longer than two hours. However, Yako disputes those figures: “Our members’ reports on turn times don’t always coincide with what the port reports,” she says.

There’s no disputing an increase in volume of container cargo handled by the port: it handled 2.8 million TEUs (each TEU is the equivalent of a 20-foot container) in 2013, compared to 2.5 million in 2010, and it projects traffic of between 4.15 and 5.2 million TEUs by 2020. According to Yako, efficiency is not simply a matter of road infrastructure: the new South Fraser Perimeter Road and a replacement for the Pattullo Bridge and George Massey Tunnel will be sufficient as traffic increases. What needs attention, she says, is efficient use of that infrastructure. “We’re only using it 12 to 14 hours a day, and as volumes increase we’re going to have to move to extended, and possibly, 24/7 gate hours,” says Yako, referring to the operating hours during which truckers can access port facilities.

Port Metro Vancouver is also confident that existing infrastructure, as well as planned improvements, will suffice as traffic levels increase. “There have been generational investments in mobility in the region,” says Peter Xotta, vice-president of operations. As an example of the kinds of improvement the port is implementing, he points to GPS monitoring, which he says will help co-ordinate truck movements more efficiently.

The 2014 strike was the third labour dispute in 15 years involving Port Metro Vancouver, and it affected $885 million in container traffic that moves through the port each week, according to Port Metro Vancouver. Improvements to infrastructure and initiatives to improve efficiency are part of Port Metro Vancouver’s strategy of increasing the number of daily trips truckers can make, as opposed to regulating the trucking industry, which in turn could make Vancouver a more expensive place to do business, says Peter Hall, an SFU professor who studies the port system. But when the port doesn’t run at the efficiency levels that it should, the costs fall on the truckers. “Having the largest, cheapest port we can have might not be the solution,” says Hall.