Already bustling with activity, The Port of Virginia’s Norfolk International Terminals container facility is about to undergo significant expansion.
Already bustling with activity, The Port of Virginia’s Norfolk International Terminals container facility is about to undergo significant expansion.

Already bringing record cargo volumes across its docks, The Port of Virginia is prepared to step activity up another notch this year with the handling of mega-vessels carrying 13,000 or more 20-foot-equivalent units of containers.
“We anticipate, with all these new networks and alliances, that the East Coast is going to see the 13,000-plus-TEU ships this year,” John F. Reinhart, the Virginia Port Authority’s chief executive officer and executive director, told the American Journal of Transportation. “We’re excited about the opportunity, because we can bring them in today.”

Thus far, the largest containership to call The Port of Virginia has had a 10,300-TEU capacity, with 10,000-TEU ships now being handled on a weekly basis, but Reinhart said VPA facilities are prepared to accommodate still-bigger vessels.

“We have the cranes that can do it; we have the water depth that can do it,” he said. “The thing is making sure that we have the facilities laid out to handle that surge in capacity.”

Expansion projects totaling more than $1 billion are moving forward to boost throughput capabilities at Virginia container terminals by 40 percent, or about 1 million TEUs a year, but those endeavors won’t be completed for a few more years.

Thus, the key, now more than ever, is to move boxes on and off marine terminals as swiftly and efficiently as possible.

“As the ships get larger, we need to have effective rail, effective road and also some more improvement on the water-to-water, because you’re going to have to get it out – or in – every which way you can,” said Reinhart, who is entering his fourth year at the VPA helm following 23 years as a Maersk Line executive, the last 14 of those years as CEO.

The port’s rail traffic, up 18 percent on a year-over-year basis, is expected to further increase, as Norfolk Southern Railway’s double-stack Heartland Corridor was joined in December by the double-stack National Gateway of CSX Transportation in connecting Virginia port facilities with markets in America’s heartland.

Reinhart said the enhanced rail is extending The Port of Virginia’s reach for both import and export sectors, adding that this was integral to the port handling a record of more than 2.65 million TEUs in 2016, up 4.2 percent over the prior year. Containerized exports, propelled by agricultural goods, rose 2.6 percent, while imports were up 6 percent. Meanwhile, the share of containers moving empty has fallen significantly.

Another factor in the extension of inland reach is related to the fact that The Port of Virginia is a first-in and last-out call for a number of services, including those of the Ocean Alliance (of CMA CGM, China Cosco Shipping, Evergreen Line and Orient Overseas Container Line) and THE Alliance (of Hapag-Lloyd, “K” Line, Mitsui O.S.K. Line, NYK Line and Yang Ming), both launching in April, in addition to continuing to host regular calls of the 2M Alliance (of Maersk Line and Mediterranean Shipping Co.), which began in 2015.

“We are on a little bit of a trajectory, with momentum and with a path forward,” Reinhart said. “And it’s nice to see that we’re turning the construction into reality, so we can prepare for what’s yet to come. We’re feeling good.”

Work began in February on the $320 million expansion at the 576-acre Virginia International Gateway container terminal in Portsmouth, following November inking of a lease extension through 2065. Efforts at VIG include enlarging the container stacking yard, doubling on-dock rail operations, expanding the truck gate complex and lengthening the wharf area to accommodate four new Suez-class container cranes.

Whereas the original VPA announcement said the VIG project is scheduled to be done by 2020, Reinhart said he is hopeful it will be completed before the end of 2019.

Meanwhile, work is to begin this summer on the three-phase $350 million undertaking to expand operations at the 567-acre Norfolk International Terminals container facility, with its achievement targeted for 2020. A separate $30 million project to add 26 new truck lanes in and out of the NIT facility is slated to be finished in June, to be followed a year later by completion of a $169 million intermodal connector being built by the Virginia Department of Transportation to provide trucks direct Interstate highway access.

Currently offering a 50-foot-deep harbor, The Port of Virginia is continuing to advance plans aimed at bringing its channel depth to 55 feet.
Currently offering a 50-foot-deep harbor, The Port of Virginia is continuing to advance plans aimed at bringing its channel depth to 55 feet.

In November, the VPA signed a $217 million contract with Konecranes for 86 rail-mounted stacking cranes to be deployed at the expanded VIG and NIT terminals. While all this work is going on, the VPA’s reopened Portsmouth Marine Terminal is being looked to by Reinhart to furnish a “saving grace,” offering capabilities to handle containerships with capacities of as many as 6,000 TEUs and thus “give us some breathing space.”

On the waterside, efforts are proceeding toward deepening and widening port channel areas, which have been at a 50-foot depth for more than a decade. A general re-evaluation report on going to 55 feet has been under way for 18 months, with modeling simulations now being run. Reinhart said the hope is to have design plans ready by 2018 so the process of seeking funding can begin.

The VPA’s inland facilities are doing well, too. Activity is on the rise at the Virginia Inland Port intermodal ramp in Front Royal, while volume at the VPA-operated Richmond Marine Terminal is tracking up 44 percent on a year-over-year basis, according to Reinhart.

Further gains are expected at Richmond as a new barge with ability to handle additional 20-foot containers and refrigerated boxes has just entered service along the James River, paralleling the 90-mile stretch of Interstate 64 between Tidewater area marine terminals and the commonwealth’s capital city. A year earlier, the VPA added a mobile harbor crane at the Richmond terminal.

“It’s an exciting time in Virginia,” Reinhart said, “in trying to get ahead of the large ship surge that we see coming on the East Coast.”