The Port of Virginia is a massive operation, spreading over nearly 2,000 acres. It was the first to accept enormous new ships from China in 2016, when they passed through a newly-widened Panama Canal. At the time, Virginia had the deepest shipping channel on the east coast, so a ship’s keel could go down fifty feet without hitting the bottom.
Today, CEO John Reinhart says other ports have caught up. “So now you have 50 feet going to 52 in Charleston. You’ve got Savannah going to 47, but with a 7-foot tide they say they’re 54 feet deep. You have New York and New Jersey now at 50 feet, and they raised the Bayonne Bridge to get the ultra-large container ships in.”
But he’s confident Virginia can compete. “You’re never going to take the cargo out of the New York that is consumed in the N.Y. area. They have 44 million consumers up there, so that freight’s got to go there, but you know what? Freight going anywhere else in this country could come here,” Reinhart says.
That’s because the port just invested in four new cranes that stand 170 feet tall. That’s the height of a 12-story building, bigger than any others on the East Coast, and they bring to 30 the number of cranes now available to load and unload ships.
Because Virginia has no overhead bridges to block tall cargo, the cranes arrived in one piece. “Like in New York they’re assembling two cranes. It’ll take them six months to a year to get those cranes ready," Reinhart notes. "We’ll be able to go live in about eight weeks.”
And as cargo containers are moved off ships, they can continue their trip by barge. “In 2008 there was a desire to see if they could create a marine highway. There were no ships calling at the Richmond Marine Terminal, but they started with a little barge. It was running once a week, doing like 150 containers in the first year.”
By 2018, 30,000 containers were traveling by barge annually, and with the addition of a new one this year, Reinhart predicts Virginia will double the cargo heading for its capital. “That’s 120,000 trucks that don’t have to go up and down Route 64, and you can use one engine to tow the barge, so you reduce your carbon impact, and then you do shorter deliveries around Richmond by truck.”
Other shippers will opt for travel by train, using rail lines from Norfolk to the inland port of Front Royal. And Reinhart adds the Port of Virginia is poised to take one more step, dredging the shipping channel down to 55 feet and widening it so two ships can pass at the same time.
China is, for now, the port’s biggest customer, and with all the talk of trade wars, you might expect some concern about excess capacity, but Rinehart feels sure more cargo will be coming and going from Virginia. “Some of the manufacturing has already started to migrate to Southeast Asia and Vietnam, Indonesia, around to India, so you have some other outlets that are going to still produce and if you think about the evolution going on in India, the population will exceed that of China. Africa continues to be an area of growth. Global population is still growing, and 50% of the world’s population now is middle class or above. That means consumers globally.”
So this year the port will celebrate the ten-year anniversary of its barge service, 30 years of rail traffic to Front Royal along with $26 million in improvements there, the addition of giant cranes and plans to dredge and widen the shipping lanes – confident that it’s poised for the future.