The Port of Virginia is citing the increased efficiency of its trucking operations as it vies with other ports for more container volumes. Yet even with trucks able to move faster than ever through the port, it is also offering shippers many alternative ways to access inland markets.    

The third-largest container port on the U.S. East Coast, Virginia is one of the major  beneficiaries of the move to bigger vessels and the shifts in overseas product sourcing. Through October, container volumes have risen just under 4% to 2.486 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs). Imports of 1.159 million TEUs are up 5% over the same period.

The increase comes as the Port of Virginia nears completion of a three-year, $750 million project to increase container capacity by 40%, or 1 million units per year. 

The biggest part of that went to the expansion of the Virginia International Gateway (VIG), the port’s main container terminal and one of the few semi-automated terminals in North America. 

The project nearly doubled VIG’s capacity with 13 new container stacks, bringing the total to 28, and added an 800-foot wharf and four of the tallest ship-to-shore cranes in the Americas, as well as new truck lanes and doubled rail capacity.

The Port of Virginia is also halfway through another project at nearby Norfolk International Terminals (NIT). NIT will be able to handle 400,000 more containers, a 46% increase, through the addition of 18 new semi-automated container stacks and 36 rail-mounted gantry cranes. 

Another part of the expansion starts in early 2020 when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers begins a four-year dredging project in Norfolk Harbor, making it the deepest harbor on the East Coast.

The harbor will be dredged to 55 feet from 50 feet, and portions of the ship channel will be widened from 1,000 feet to 1,400 feet to allow two-way traffic of ultra-large container vessels. “That’s a big advantage when ships are not having to wait,” said Joanne Jenkins, VIG’s terminal services manager.

Along with the ability to better handle large ships, the port said it is seeing much better turn times for trucks. The VIG added four inbound truck lanes, bringing the total to 17.

Operational changes have also helped the port. The Port of Virginia struck an agreement with the local International Longshoremen’s Association to allow truckers to keep a container chassis for upwards of 10 trips before having to be re-inspected for roadability.

The port’s appointment system is also boosting truck fluidity. Drivers are able to make an appointment for a one-hour window for a pickup starting one day before the container’s availability at the dock. The appointment system, which is currently for gate moves between 4 a.m. and 2 p.m., is being expanded to 3 p.m. 

The result of these moves is that turn times at the VIG are averaging just over 30 minutes while NIT turn times are 48 minutes.

The port’s biggest shipper, a major U.S. retailer, tested the VIG’s fluidity by moving 500 containers in one day during October, Jenkins said. This, without any special stacking of the shipper’s freight.      

Initially, “truck drivers didn’t know if they wanted this [appointment system] or not,” Jenkins said. But it meant a “big, big improvement in truck turns.”

Short-haul trips are a growing part of port drayage due to the growth in warehousing and distribution in the region. Jenkins cited one driver making up to 10 turns in one day at the port. 

Turn times at the port are likely benefiting from a softer market relative to last year, said Trevor Dunlap, director of operations at Chesapeake-based third-party logistics provider Givens Group.

Left to Right: Allen Campbell and Trevor Dunlap of Givens.

Still, Dunlap credits the port for the operational changes. For trucking and logistics, the appointment system was a challenge during its startup, Dunlap said. Initially, truckers went for the prime pickup times, and “it wasn’t uncommon to struggle for a day or two to get an appointment,” he added.

Despite the onus on trucking and logistics to better coordinate moves, “the appointment system was definitely necessary,” Dunlap said. “It’s very fortunate the port is pushing forward with new innovations and expansions.”

Truck fluidity will be key as the amount of refrigerated cargo crossing the dock increases. The port plans to double the number of reefer container plugs at the VIG and NIT to 2,300.

Preferred Freezer Services is building a 200,000-square-foot cold storage warehouse in Portsmouth near the port. Once complete, the facility will join about 6 million square feet of cold storage warehousing listed on the Port of Virginia’s website. The Reefer Outbound Tender Volume Index for Norfolk (ROTVIY.ORF) is up 57% from a year ago.

Reefer Outbound Tender Volumes out of Norfolk (SONAR: ROTVIY.ORF)

But trucks are not the only way the port is moving refrigerated cargo. The port’s container-on-barge service runs up the James River to the port’s Richmond Marine Terminal, about 200 miles inland.

Russ Held, vice president of business development at the Port of Virginia, said the ability of barges to move refrigerated cargo attracted German grocery chain Lidl to use container barges. Amazon, Lumber Liquidators, Bissell and Brother International are other shippers using the container-on-barge service.

In 2018, Virginia received a federal grant which, along with port funds, will go toward the purchase of a second barge, and the ability to run five days per week.

“It is booming,” Held said. “The only limit is the capacity we can provide as far as barges.” 

The port also invested $26 million in the Virginia Inland Port, a rail-to-truck transfer site 200 miles to the northwest. The investment includes additional rail track capacity, new lift equipment and a new grade separation.

Aside from barges, rail connectivity is one of the port’s strongest assets. Just over one-third of Virginia’s containers move by rail, the highest percentage for any U.S. East Coast port. 

Norfolk Southern offers daily outbound, double-stack intermodal train service that would take two days to Chicago from the VIG. CSX offers five days of outbound intermodal service that would take four days to reach Chicago.

Rail could also play a critical role in handling an expected uptick in oversize and project cargo, said Aaron Katrancha, director of breakbulk services at the Port of Virginia. Along with supplying the largest U.S. Navy base, the Port of Virginia is looking to be a hub for the expected growth in U.S. offshore wind energy projects. The port is also looking to grab its share of discretionary cargo now moving through the East Coast.

“You can get to more places than you can from any other port,” Katrancha said. “It’s as fast a route as you would have out of New York.”


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