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Digging deeper

Project to dredge harbor channels vital to the   Port of Virginia’s future.

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Print this page By Jessica Sabbath
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The CMA CGM Roosevelt visits the Port of Virginia in August 2017.
Photo courtesy Port of Virginia

A key to the Port of Virginia’s future lies 55 feet below the surface of the Norfolk harbor.

That is the depth the Virginia maritime community wants to dredge its main channel to so it can keep up with the mammoth ships visiting the port’s marine terminals. The largest vessels calling on the port today — called ultra-large container vessels, or ULCVs — displace so much water that the Thimble Shoal Channel on the Chesapeake Bay is restricted to one-way traffic when these ships pass through. That can create quite a bottleneck on a busy thoroughfare that handles container, coal, bulk and Navy ship traffic.

The $300 million project, which also includes the widening of the Thimble Shoal channel to accommodate two-way traffic, is important not only to the maritime community in Hampton Roads but also the growth of Virginia’s economy as a whole. Hundreds of distribution, warehousing and logistics companies are located throughout Virginia. The Richmond Marine Terminal and the Virginia Inland Port in Front Royal are major economic drivers in their regions. 

In addition, the channel deepening project marks an important status for the port, which in recent years lost its ranking as the deepest port on the East Coast as several other ports dredged their harbors to match its 50-foot depths. South Carolina is dredging its channels to 52 feet.

Deeper waters allow these massive vessels to come in heavier. “These projects really are the future of the port,” says David White, executive vice president of the Virginia Maritime Association. “These are the projects that are going to position us for the next 100 years. And it’s important that we pursue them as expeditiously as possible because every day that we are less competitive to another port is another day that we slip in that status, and it’s hard to get back once it’s lost.”

On land, the Port of Virginia also is undergoing a transformation. The port is in the midst of $695 million in capital projects that will expand the capacity of its two largest terminals — Norfolk International Terminals and Virginia International Gateway in Portsmouth — by 40 percent.

“What you’re seeing is the largest single investment that the port has ever made in itself, and it’s really positioning us nicely to be the premier logistics center on the East Coast,” says Joe Harris, spokesman with the Port of Virginia. “[We’re moving toward] 55-foot channels. We’re building modern terminals with ample capacity that tells current cargo owners across the nation that anybody that wants to move cargo across the Port of Virginia, we have the ability to move your cargo.”

Deeper, wider channels

For more than a decade, widening and deepening the channels leading to the Port of Virginia have been a priority of the maritime community. And now the project is moving closer to reality.

In December, the leadership of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Washington, D.C., approved the National Economic Development benefit plan to dredge both the Norfolk harbor and the Southern branch of the Elizabeth River, where many of the region’s bulk and breakbulk terminals are located.
That approval came sooner than expected. “Because our application was so well-managed and so well put together and we had such good partners in the [Norfolk District] Army Corps of Engineers, we were actually able to leapfrog an interim review,” says Harris.

Virginia has had congressional authorization to dredge its channels to 55 feet since 1986, but a re-evaluation report is required to ensure the project is still in the federal interest and wouldn’t have major harmful environmental impacts. So, in 2015, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Port of Virginia began the three-year study.

Since its initial approval in December, the Norfolk District of the Corps has been refining the report based on input from independent external peer reviews, another corps district and public comments. “It is well supported by the port community, and we didn’t receive any letters that indicated any environmental and other negative comments,” says Robert Pretlow, project manager for the Norfolk District Army Corps of Engineers.

In addition, the cost of the project is likely to go down from original estimates. The Norfolk harbor deepening was expected to cost around $324 million but that may be reduced to under $300 million because of savings found in the review process, says Pretlow. A Corps’ chief of engineer’s review is expected to be complete in June.

The project then will need to be included in the Water Resources Development Act and approved by Congress, because the project the Corps has recommended additional depths.

The Corps is recommending that the Norfolk channel be dredged to 55 feet, the Thimble Shoal channel in the Chesapeake Bay to 56 feet and the channel at the Atlantic Ocean to 59 feet. “The Thimble Shoal Channel requires deeper water because the ships bounce around a little more due to the waves and wind,” says Pretlow. In addition, the deeper ocean channel depth is needed because “the most vulnerable wave climate for vessels is in the open ocean.”

The project also would widen the Thimble Shoal channel from 1,000 to 1,300 feet on the eastern side of the channel. That would again allow the two-way navigation of the channel when a ULCV enters or leaves the port. However, the Virginia Maritime Association is pushing for the channel to be widened to 1,400 feet instead. Any additional funding beyond what is in the Corps’ chief report would be required to be funded by the state.

A separate project to dredge the southern branch of the Elizabeth River, where many of the region’s bulk and breakbulk terminals reside, also is moving forward. The corps estimates that project cost will range from $130 million to $140 million.

Those recommendations include deepening the channel from Lamberts Bend to Perdue Farms from 40 feet to 45 feet; from Norfolk Southern Life Bridge to the Gilmerton Bridge from 35 feet to 39 feet and maintaining the channel from Gilmerton Bridge to the Chesapeake extension to a required depth of 35 feet.  “It’s the same principle at play here,” says White of the VMA. “The deeper you can load the more product you can load on the same vessel and reduce your transportation costs, you’re making the exports and the imported cargoes that are shipped over the terminals on the Southern Branch that much more competitive.”

Funding for the projects appears to be moving forward. At press time, both the Virginia House of Delegates and Senate had included $20 million in their proposed budgets for the preliminary engineering and design of the dredging projects. In addition, the House had included an additional $330 million in bonding authorization, which would cover the state’s share of both projects. The chambers were scheduled to meet in mid-April to come to an agreement on a budget.

The General Assembly’s potential investment comes just a few years after it approved $350 million to expand Norfolk International Terminals. The Virginia Maritime Association attributes that move to better understanding the port’s economic influence in the state, as well as the association’s establishment of chapters around the state, including: Central Virginia, Shenandoah Valley and future chapters in Southern, Southwest and Northern Virginia. “The money is absolutely necessary, but the other thing that’s key about the budget put forth by the House is the message that it sends to the global marketplace,” says White. “It lets the ocean carriers know that they should be planning for Virginia to have 55-foot channel and two-way navigation.”

The preliminary engineering and design of the project is expected to take about two years to complete. Construction likely will take between three and four years, says Pretlow, but the project’s timeline could be condensed. “We can actually stage construction based on when the design of each feature is completed,” says Pretlow. “For example, we could design the Atlantic Ocean and start dredging there while still planning the other features.”

Massive vessels

Last year, many East Coast ports — including Virginia — began seeing a jump in the size of the largest vessels loading and offloading containers. These ULCVs can hold 13,000 to 14,000 TEUs, (20-foot equivalent units). Before the first of these vessels — Cosco Development — visited last May, the largest container ships the port was handling were 10,300 TEUs.

The introduction of these ships is an illustrative example of the need for both the capital projects at the port, as well as the deepening project.
Ocean carriers continue to build larger ships in an effort to cut costs. In fact, while container traffic at the port grew 7 percent last year to a record level, the number of ships visiting the port dropped by 9 percent.

These huge vessels are calling on the Port of Virginia often once a week. Not only do they require the restriction of the Thimble Shoal Channel to one-way traffic, but they also affect port operations, straining terminals that are already busy managing major construction projects at the same time. “The visits by ULCVs are a good basic reinforcement that the Port of Virginia can handle the larger ships that are serving the East Coast,” says John Milliken, chairman of the Virginia Port Authority. “And if we’re able to do that we will be able to keep ahead of the anticipated growth in ship size. Right now, there are 17,000-TEU ships servicing the West Coast, and there are 20,000-TEU ships serving Northern Europe, so ultimately these sizes are likely to find their way to the East Coast as well.

“Our goals is to be able to serve whatever ships are moving goods to and from the East Coast,” says Milliken.

The ULCVs, however, certainly add challenges. “The impacts they are having are beneficial but not entirely because we are in the midst of a major construction program,” says Milliken. “We’re having some short-term congestion issues because a part of our terminal space is out of service.”’
The projects are being implemented incrementally, however, and some improvements should be seen before the projects are finished as the port adds new cranes into service. 

The $320 million expansion at Virginia International Gateway in Portsmouth is expected to be complete by spring 2019. The project essentially doubles the current terminal. It includes the addition of 13 new container stacks and 26 new rail-mounted gantry cranes, lengthening the berth, adding four new ship-to-shore cranes, doubling the size of the rail operation and adding four new lanes to the truck gate.

Expansion of Norfolk International Terminals — the port’s largest terminal — is expected to be complete in 2020. That project includes reconfiguring its container stack yard to be served by rail-mounted gantry cranes that will allow more density on the terminal. The project will include adding 60 of the container-stacking cranes. NIT recently opened its new truck gate complex, which allows drivers to process through the gates with automated technology. 

Once complete, the port hopes to open up Portsmouth Marine Terminal to expand the port’s non-containerized cargo loads.

“Over the next 10 years you’re going to have two major operating terminals doing almost exclusively container business,” says Milliken. “The other two terminals [Portsmouth and Newport News] will be doing principally noncontainer products. This includes everything from heavy generators or fan blades to offshore wind turbines to agricultural products that are not in containers. That will allow to offer a range of product service that we haven’t been able to offer in the past.”


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