Aerial view of the Port of Davisville, RI
Aerial view of the Port of Davisville, RI

Question Answered. In November 2016, Rhode Island voters approved “Question 5”, a $50 million bond measure for infrastructure projects at the Port of Davisville.
With the Question overwhelmingly answered, the biggest, small port in the US can now implement the critical $90 million modernization plan for Pier 2.

The Port of Davisville is part of the Quonset Development Corp’s (QDC) Quonset Business Park development. The QDC is a quasi-state agency – a “Special Purpose” subsidiary of the Rhode Island Department of Commerce.

The Port of Davisville is a unique success story. While it is expected that mega-ports like the Port of New York/New Jersey or the San Pedro ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles would occupy the top rung in many port-related categories, the Port of Davisville is in the top ten in vehicle handling in the US. With the bond question settled, the port is in position to continue rising up the ranks. In 2016, a record breaking 214,350 vehicles arrived by sea and another 40,870 by rail and truck. NORAD, the port’s auto processor, handled 258,740 vehicles and another 305 metric tons of project cargo (principally wind) in 2016.

To put the success in perspective, when the port began auto imports in 1996, it handled just over 35,000 and really didn’t crack the 40,000-unit barrier until 2003. However, the rise has been spectacular since the recession in 2009 and although there was a slight dip in 2016 compared to 2015, that was due to winter diversions to Davisville from other ports, not inherent business. Besides the Bond Question and Pier 2 mentioned above, there has been significant recent investment made in the facilities. Back in June 2016, the port announced an investment of $1.25 million in paving and stripping Terminal 5, which covers over 13-acres, to provide more capacity and operational flexibility, particularly on days when two ships are in port. Another port investment was to support a project that involved installing new marine hardware to allow the port to more fully utilize Terminals 4 and 5.

Shortly after the November bond bill vote, the Port of Davisville made a change at the top with the appointment of Robert Blackburn as the new port director on December 13, 2016. Blackburn served the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority in a variety of positions over a 23-year period, most recently, as Senior Deputy Executive Director. Among his many roles, he was responsible for the re-development of the ro/ro auto import business in Philadelphia, a background that suits his current role and position in Davisville. From a port strategy perspective, Blackburn said in a telephone interview with the AJOT, “We want to continue steady growth in our core business, the automobiles, while intelligently diversifying our portfolio while taking care of our park tenants.”

Pier 2 and the Port’s Future

More than any other single project, Pier 2 is central to the modernization plan for the Port of Davisville. Pier 2 is an earth filled cofferdam cell structure built by the US Navy in 1956. It was designed to last 50 years, a period that has come and gone. The pier is the primary facility in the Port of Davisville and due to its style of construction [earth filled rather than timber supported], it is the pier best suited to handling heavy “deck” project cargo. In addition, the pier is the easiest to expand into another berth allowing multiple vessels to berth simultaneously. The proposed redevelopment would add another 50 years of life to the pier, as well as adding another berth. However, as Blackburn explained, “adding another 50 years of functional life to the pier [Pier 2] while not interfering with our commerce, is a challenge because we are so busy.” Blackburn also pointed out the other berth is important as it would enable the Port to handle Pure Car Carriers (PCC). Currently the berth is used for barges and project work.

There is substantial engineering required to bring the pier in line with the anticipated demands – particularly with the wind turbine business.

The proposed solution for Pier 2 is to “install a new HZ style wall with grouted earth anchors drilled into the existing pier backfill. This will create “dead man” tie backs to anchor the wall, supporting the exposed height and earth pressure,” according to the published plan for modernization.

According to reports, the total cost of redeveloping Pier 2 is around $90 million and will include the creation of a third berth, some dredging, and installing new sheet pile around the entire 16-acre earth filled wharf.

Of the total investment, $25 million will come from the revenue bond repaid entirely by the QDC via port users, $50 million from the general obligation bond, and $15 million from appropriation from the State’s Capital Plan Fund, according to QDC.

Wind & Sea

The modernization is also vital to the wind power business, especially offshore. The port has already played an important role in the development of Deepwater Wind’s Block Island Project. Various pieces of the project arrived via Quonset, including the steel jackets and more than 28 miles of cable. In addition, Quonset served as the principal port for the project’s heavy installation vessels over a two-year period. Not surprisingly, Quonset-based companies participated in every aspect of the project’s construction.

In addition, Deepwater Wind established its own worker and equipment facility on-site at Quonset and the Atlantic Pioneer, the first U.S.-built crew transfer vessel (CTV) engineered specifically to service offshore wind projects is based at the port. Besides the offshore business, component parts of other land-based wind turbines now in service in Rhode Island have also come across the pier at Davisville.

From a competitive perspective, ports in the Northeast are beginning to take the potential that the offshore wind business has very seriously. For the Port of Davisville, getting a head start with Deepwater’s Block Island Project could be instrumental in establishing a much larger foothold in an emerging industry.