Industries Ports/Trade

Full steam ahead

With state backing, port moves ahead with major projects

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Print this page by Jessica Sabbath
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The One Stork, an ultra-large container vessel, calls on the Port of
Virginia in July. Photo courtesy Port of Virginia

Despite a tumultuous international trade environment, the Port of Virginia is driving ahead with game-changing projects on land and sea.

In June, the U.S. Corps of Engineers gave final approval for plans to deepen and widen the channels leading to the port’s Hampton Roads terminals. Just a month earlier, the Virginia General Assembly had approved the $350 million needed to fund the project.

The start of the project is a major milestone for Virginia’s maritime community, which has made deepening the channel to 55 feet a priority for more than a decade. “Our members keep asking when dredging is going to start,” says David White, executive vice president of the Virginia Maritime Association. “There’s a lot of excitement.”

Expanded channels are vital to the port’s growth as ocean carriers continue to deploy increasingly large container ships. Last year, East Coast ports, including Virginia, began to handle ultra-large container vessels (ULCVs), which hold more than 14,000 TEUs, or 20-foot-equivalent units.

These massive ships displace so much water that the Coast Guard limits the Thimble Shoal channel in the Chesapeake Bay to one-way traffic as the big ships pass through. That can be a major issue for channels that handle both commercial and Navy ships.

“The significant impacts will be getting us back to the point where we can offer two-way vessel transits … 24-7,” says White.

The change also will allow ocean carriers to more fully load large vessels coming to the port.

The project will give Virginia the opportunity to again become the deepest port on the East Coast. For years, the Port of Virginia’s 50-foot depth gave it that status, but in the past decade ports in New York and Miami have dredged their channels to that level. Charleston, S.C., is dredging its channels to 52 feet.

Having the deepest port assures ocean carriers that Virginia can handle big ships. The port expects it soon could see even larger vessels, 16,000 TEUs.

Preliminary design and engineering work on the project began this summer. Construction is expected to begin in 2020 and be complete in 2024.

The project, a partnership involving the U.S. Corps of Engineers and the port, should be partly funded by the federal government. Funding for this type of project, however, is determined in the federal budget each year.

Nonetheless, the General Assembly’s support allows the project to move forward. The federal government could pay the state back at a later date for its share. “That kind of support shows them how serious we are about it — that we’re not solely reliant on the federal government,” says Joe Harris, spokesman for the Port of Virginia. “It shows how progressive Virginia is with these kinds of projects.”

On land, the port is expanding its two largest terminals. Two projects, totaling nearly $700 million, will increase cargo container capacity by 40 percent.

The $320 million expansion of Virginia International Gateway in Portsmouth is on schedule for completion next June. The terminal already has received rail-mounted gantry cranes, or RMGs, which are used to organize container stacks. Six of 13 new container stacks are in service. By January, all of the container stacks and four new ship-to-shore cranes should be ready. Expansion of the terminal’s rail capacity should be complete in February.

Expansion of the port’s largest terminal, Norfolk International Terminals, is scheduled to be complete by June 2020. The $350 million project is being funded entirely by the state. In July, the first six RMGs were delivered. The first three new container stacks should be in service by October. New stacks will open incrementally until the project is finished.

“The future here is exceptionally bright,” says Harris. “We’re going to be the deepest port on the East Coast, and we’re going to have the most modern and technologically advanced terminals. It’s going to drive job creation and economic investment in Virginia, and it sets us up to be the premier mid-Atlantic gateway for trade.”

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