Canada’s largest port could run out of container capacity in as soon as five years, exacerbating domestic and global supply chain issues, according to Robin Silvester, president and chief executive officer of the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority. 

The federal agency that oversees 29 terminals on B.C.’s south coast said it needs more industrial land in metro Vancouver to alleviate port congestion caused by a surge in demand for both imports and exports.

“Supply chain works well when you can move goods from marine containers into rail containers near the port,” Silvester said in a recent broadcast interview. “Without a land base, that doesn't happen.”

The Port of Vancouver – where $240 billion worth of goods flow through to 170 countries in a typical year -- faced pandemic-related delays and extreme weather last year that led to declines in grain, fertilizer, lumber, and food shipments.

Containers continue to return to Asia empty in a rush to accommodate extremely high consumer demand in North America for imported goods, leaving Canadian shippers scrambling for containers to reach overseas markets. More land is needed in the port region to store any available empty containers so they’re accessible to Canadian exporters. And now, geopolitical events like the Russian invasion of Ukraine are highlighting a missed opportunity for Canada to increase its world exports of key products.

“[Grain and potash] are commodities that Canada is a strong producer of and a significant player in the international market,” said Silvester.

Vancouver’s tight industrial land market is also deterring investment by companies like Inc. and clean-tech start-ups that are vying for space in the region alongside condo developers, according to Silvester.

“We have a very fragmented land planning governance in the Lower Mainland,” Silvester said. “We have a lot of pressure on land use, we have expensive housing, we have people wanting to bring more housing stock to market.”

He spoke of a waterfront sawmill in Port Moody, 20 kilometres east of Vancouver, that was part of the port before it was rezoned for a high-rise development. “That's typical of what we've seen around the region – losing those economically critical industrial lands to other uses like residential,” he said.

The Roberts Bank Terminal 2 Project is the only way to make up for the shortfall, according to Silvester. The project — 25 kilometres south of Vancouver in Delta, B.C. — will enable 2.4 million TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent units) of container handling capacity. It would mark a 36 per cent boost for the west coast and a 50 per cent increase for the Port of Vancouver. It’s still pending federal government approval after eight years and is estimated to take six years to build.

“In Canada, we take a long time to approve projects,” he said.