Trains with double-stacked containers move increasing volumes of cargo inland from the Port of Virginia’s Norfolk International Terminals facility.
Trains with double-stacked containers move increasing volumes of cargo inland from the Port of Virginia’s Norfolk International Terminals facility.

Officials of the Port of Virginia are busy working to ensure that infrastructure limitations don’t hold back decades of sustained future growth as a mid-Atlantic gateway of choice for burgeoning container volumes.
In an interview with the American Journal of Transportation, John F. Reinhart, the Port of Virginia’s chief executive officer and executive director, said the 6.5 percent increase in container throughput realized in calendar 2015 over 2014 might well have been even greater, but facilities were bursting at the seams as they handled more than 2.5 million 20-foot-equivalent units.

“We were beyond optimal capacity,” Reinhart said. “That’s why we didn’t harvest even more growth last year, because we were getting congested.

“That’s why our laser focus on these infrastructure projects has moved so quickly,” he said, referring to some $700 million in direct investments under way, with half coming via an infusion from the Virginia General Assembly, “and it’s just rewarding to see the support of the Commonwealth [of Virginia] and the market.”

The market has indeed been supportive, with some of the cargo that moved to the East Coast in the midst of last year’s West Coast port slowdowns appearing to have shifted permanently, with still-larger mega-containerships being deployed, with the expanded Panama Canal due to finally open at midyear and with more containers coming to U.S. ports via Suez Canal routings.

Virginia leaders are now concentrating upon retaining gains, with undertakings from channels and berths all the way to inland terminals.

“Virginia wants to create a viable gateway in the mid-Atlantic that can serve global trade efficiently for decades to come,” Reinhart said. “We’re recovering quickly from some times of a lack of investment, and we’re working with all dispatch to keep pace with the changes that are happening in the global carrier trades.”

That said, for the time being, even as the Port of Virginia and stakeholders team to advance a series of productivity measures, growth has slowed a tad at Virginia container facilities

“We see this year being a little bit softer,” Reinhart said, noting that TEU count, while still on the upswing, isn’t rising quite as quickly as it did in 2015. “Calendar year to date, we’re 3.6 percent up over last year.

“As we start this year, we set on a path to figure out a way to modernize NIT,” Reinhart said, referencing the $350 million state-backed endeavor to bring Norfolk International Terminals a semiautomated operation with rail-mounted gantry cranes on its south berth, as well as a $30 million project to double the NIT north gate complex capacity by next January.

“It’s very exciting to have the commonwealth, the governor and the legislature recognize the critical importance of the port and make a capital infusion of $350 million so that we can accelerate the growth of the facilities without any additional debt,” Reinhart said.

The automated container terminal at the Virginia International Gateway in Portsmouth is the focus of a $320 million project to double its throughput capability
The automated container terminal at the Virginia International Gateway in Portsmouth is the focus of a $320 million project to double its throughput capability

In addition, a separate $169 million Virginia Department of Transportation project aims to provide by early 2018 a direct link for trucks between NIT and Interstate 564. At the same time, $320 million of improvements are intended to double the containerized cargo capacity at the Virginia International Gateway in Portsmouth.

The VIT and VIG projects are anticipated, over the next three years, to bring about a 1 million TEU increase in the Port of Virginia’s throughput capability, along with doubling of capacity of on-dock rail and truck gate structures.

“It’s very exciting,” enthused Reinhart, the former Maersk Line Ltd. CEO who is now in his third year at the Port of Virginia’s helm.

He emphasized that enhancements are moving forward not just on the marine terminals themselves but throughout Virginia’s logistics network.

“The system starts at the water, works across the berth through the terminal and then inland via rail, via truck and also via water transportation,” Reinhart said. “We’re trying to make sure the flow is unimpeded across any of those intermodal modes as we make these critical investments in our deepwater facilities.”

The port currently has a 50-foot-deep channel, devoid of overhead air draft restrictions, and boasts 50-foot alongside berth depths, but a study has now entered its second year related to deepening the whole channel to 55 feet plus widening it to accommodate two-way traffic, so ships can safely come and go fully loaded without delay.

Bolstering intermodal rail capacity already is proving fruitful, with the percentage of Port of Virginia container traffic moving via rails expected to increase to 36 percent from the current 33 percent within three years. Corridors built by public-private partnerships to accommodate double-stacked containers on CSX Corp. and Norfolk Southern Corp. tracks should easily accommodate more boxes.

The Port of Virginia also is building upon inland facility capabilities.

The Port of Virginia’s Norfolk International Terminals facility is undergoing a $350 million capacity expansion thanks to funding from the Virginia General Assembly.
The Port of Virginia’s Norfolk International Terminals facility is undergoing a $350 million capacity expansion thanks to funding from the Virginia General Assembly.

The port has thus far spent $8 million on a mobile harbor crane and other additions at the Port of Richmond, about 90 miles up the James River from Tidewater area ocean terminals, and has signed a 40-year lease so it can increase capacity and velocity via containers on barge while taking more trucks off Interstate 64. And the Port of Virginia continues to operate Virginia Inland Port at Front Royal, 220 rail miles from its marine terminals, with efforts under way to double capacity there.

“The Port of Virginia is working to provide reliable transportation solutions to our customers and partners now and in the decades to come through our capital plans that we have put in place,” Reinhart said. “Every effort at the port is to be efficient and capable to handle the next wave of larger ships and the increased volume that will happen with the next upscale in vessels calling the East Coast.”