(In)land of opportunity
Richmond, Front Royal terminals expand port shipping capabilities
Now more than 80 years old, Richmond Marine Terminal is hardly acting like an old-timer.
Nestled along the west side of the James River, about five miles south of downtown, it’s one of two inland ports operated by the Port of Virginia — terminals situated in the interior of the commonwealth that extend the reach of the port and give shippers additional options for pushing cargo via rail, truck and river barge to other areas of the state and nation.
Richmond’s counterpart, the rail-connected Virginia Inland Port, sits about 60 miles west of Washington, D.C., in Front Royal. Established in 1989, the
operation played a key role in siphoning cargo away from Baltimore, enabling Virginia to overtake it as a container port.
“We were sort of the first ones to do that,” says Joe Dorto, former CEO of Virginia International Terminals, the Virginia Port Authority’s operations arm. “It was a gamble, but it was one that paid off.”
Over the last decade, the ports of Savannah, Georgia, and Charleston, South Carolina, have opened rail-linked inland ports much like Front Royal’s.
The Richmond terminal is another apparent trailblazer, with the port billing it as “the nation’s longest-running and most successful container-on-barge service.”
Not too long ago, however, it was a very different story.
Owned by the city and known as the Port of Richmond, the operation’s business tanked in 2009 as the Great Recession continued to unfold; waterborne-cargo volume plummeted by 78%.
A year earlier, however, a lifeline was thrown its way by the James River Barge Line’s 64 Express, a barge service ferrying containers between the Port of Virginia’s container terminals and the Richmond facility.
Two years later, in 2010, the Port of Virginia signed a five-year lease for the facility. And in 2016, the port extended the lease by another 40 years to 2056.
From all indications, that commitment by the port appears to have paid off.
Though year-over-year container volume at the Port of Virginia fell by 5.3% in 2020, a decline attributed to the pandemic and tariffs, container volume at the Richmond terminal grew by 12.1%, while the Virginia Inland Port saw a drop of 16.5%.
It wasn’t the first time that the Richmond facility — on a percentage basis — outperformed its parent organization and its partner inland port.
So how to explain Richmond’s rebirth?
Proximity to I-95, the number of major companies such as Amazon.com Inc., Lidl, Bissell and Brother International locating distribution centers and warehouses around the terminal over the past few years, as well as the ability to handle refrigerated cargo via its barge service, help explain why Richmond Marine Terminal is performing so well, says Joe Harris, Port of Virginia spokesman. “All those things are contributing to the success, and we don’t see that changing.”
The more than half-dozen companies that have invested in sites near the Richmond facility since the signing of the 40-year lease have created nearly 700 jobs, according to the port.
The Richmond operation “is a good example of the economic spillover of maritime infrastructure development,” says Ricardo Ungo, director of the International Maritime Institute at Old Dominion University.
Over the past six years, more than $24 million — through a mix of state, federal and port funds — has been invested in a range of improvements at the facility, including the addition of a new crane, a second barge, bulkhead repairs and an array of rail enhancements.
Improvements are also scheduled at Virginia Inland Port, where the port is working on a $26 million project to improve traffic flow and expand the terminal’s cargo handling capabilities.
Railyard design work there also is nearing completion, while plans for another rail project needed some modifications, slowing it down somewhat. Nevertheless, work on that project is expected to begin in early 2022, Harris adds.
Both of Virginia’s inland terminals handle only small slivers of the port’s overall container volume. Last year, Virginia Inland Port handled 28,493 containers, or 1.8% of the port’s total volume of 1.55 million containers, while Richmond moved 42,254 containers, or 2.7% of the total.
While cargo is a very important part of the picture, it’s not the whole story, Harris says.
Another part of the port’s mission is statewide economic development, creating jobs and attracting new investment, which the inland ports have delivered, Harris says.
And both Harris and Ungo say the inland operations provide another key function: getting containers out of the Hampton Roads port terminals, freeing up warehousing and container storage space and relieving congestion.
The inland terminals are also beneficial to the environment, helping to cut carbon emissions, Ungo says.
In the last fiscal year, the Richmond barge operation offered rail and barge alternatives for about 80,000 truck trips, according to the port.
“Barges and rails versus trucks — those are options that need to be considered,” Ungo says. “What we are seeing is that, even on a very small scale, we see that these activities are providing results.”