Airport investment key to ensuring B.C.’s economic growth achieves liftoff

Apr 8, 2014

Photo by: Prince George Airport Authority

So you want to help build the economy in British Columbia?

Let’s invest in airports.

Quick recap: there’s $140 billion in major projects proposed throughout central and northern B.C.

Another $12.1 billion is already under construction.

If even half of the proposed projects go ahead, they will require tens of thousands of workers that central and northern B.C. don’t have, which means those workers must come from somewhere else.

I can tell you right now they won’t be hopping on the Greyhound to come up north for four-on/four-off shift work. It’s a 12-hour bus ride with up to 26 stops to Prince George from Vancouver, and, even then, you’re only halfway up the province and several hours from most of the major projects.

No, the workers will have to fly up. And out again. Regularly.

That means that the people we will rely on to build the next phase of our economy will travel through our airports.

In many cases, they already are. Last month, the BC Aviation Council held its first event outside the Lower Mainland.

Where? Prince George.

Why? The economic boom in the north.

With a $3.3 billion smelter rebuild and LNG preparation work underway in Kitimat, Northwest Regional Airport in Terrace is already feeling the pressure.

In 2013, nearly 140,000 passengers travelled through the airport, representing a 27% year-over-year increase in traffic.

North Peace Airport in Fort St. John recorded a 30% year-over-year increase in traffic in 2013.

And some 426,000 people travelled through Prince George Airport in 2013, setting a new record. As well, airlines are adding new flights to the north.

WestJet has added service to Terrace and Fort St. John from Vancouver. And Prince George residents can now fly direct to Calgary via WestJet or Central Mountain Air.

The need for investment and expansion of airports throughout northern B.C. has gone through the roof.

In response to the boom throughout the region, Northern Development approved more than $900,000 in funding for airport improvement projects in our region last year.

Since 2006, the trust has funded 18 airport improvement projects to the tune of $14 million – that $14 million has gone on to leverage $113 million in airport investments in central and northern B.C. And we’re already seeing a need this year for more financial support to improve or expand airports in Prince Rupert, Fort St. John, Terrace and elsewhere.

The need to invest in and expand our air transport infrastructure in this province should come as no surprise – British Columbia is massive.

The flying distance between Vancouver and Fort Nelson is roughly the same as the distance from Vancouver to northern California.

I’ve written in this space before that highways in northern B.C. are not exactly optimized for the transportation of goods and people. (I firmly believe that widening highways 16 and 97 to four lanes would significantly improve this province’s global competitiveness.)

Simply put, air transport infrastructure will be crucial to this province’s economic success – and we need to be investing in that infrastructure now. For example, the oilsands capital Fort McMurray is on the cusp of completing a $260 million airport expansion program that includes a new terminal – and the airport is already moving more people than the new terminal is designed to handle.

Here’s another figure worth thinking about: for every $1 billion invested in LNG development in northwest B.C., approximately $4 billion will be invested in natural gas development, extraction and transportation in northeast B.C.

What happens when the preparation for the economic boom in the north ends and the actual investment begins?

I suspect we’re going to find out soon. •

Originally published in Business in Vancouver

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