in 2009, Norfolk edged out Savannah to take second place among East Coast ports for total tonnage of cargo handled
Source: US Department of Transportation, Atlantic Port Call by Tonnage, 2009)
Virginia's major ports are in competition with other ports on the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico, New York to Houston. Virginia also competes with West Coast ports, from San Diego to Vancouver.
Manufacturers from Asia can deliver goods in a 40-foot or 53-foot shipping container to Los Angeles, where the shipping channel is 53' deep. Containers are loaded on a train headed to Chicago, St. Louis, or even destinations on the East Coast. Such multi-modal shipping can be faster than the all-water route through the Panama Canal to Norfolk, Portsmouth, or Newport News.
The Port of Virginia relies heavily upon Federal funding to maintain and even deepen the existing shipping channels. The military presence in Hampton Roads helps get Congressional support for appropriations to improve the shipping channels and the local transportation network, both rail and highway.
To support the US Navy and civilian traffic, the US Army Corps of Engineers now maintains a 50' deep shipping channel from the Atlantic Ocean to terminals in Hampton Roads, and a 25' deep channel up the James River to Richmond.
most cargo going through Norfolk International Terminal (NIT) is containerized
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online
Virginia claims to have "the deepest natural harbor on the east coast" at Norfolk, but that claim ignores the natural harbor at Eastport, Maine. That town's harbor is deeper at 60+ feet, and the granite bedrock bottom does not require regular dredging. Eastport has an appropriate name.
Eastport is the closest US port to Europe, Africa - and Asia, once ships start to use the Northwest Passage as the ice in the Arctic Ocean disappears. However, Eastport lacks transportation links inland. There is no rail line, and Route 1 is only a two-lane highway headed south.1
Hampton Roads offers several ports with excellent rail and road connections to inland customers. The need to deepen the natural channel was triggered initially by the construction of large warships at the U.S. Navy Yard, Norfolk (now Norfolk Naval Shipyard).
The first battleships and aircraft carriers found it difficult to use the channel in the Elizabeth River, which was only 28 feet deep in some spots. On December 18, 1903, the Virginian-Pilot reported the Wright brothers had succeeded in flying a plane at Kitty Hawk, and just below that headline was a story about a Federal proposal to study dredging the channel to 30-35 feet in depth.
The initial efforts to get funding from the US Congress for river and harbor improvements failed, but between 1917-1927 the Federal government enhanced the natural channel to ensure a minimum depth of 40 feet from the mouth of the Chesapeake to Newport News, Norfolk, and Portsmouth. In 1967, the channel was dredged to 45 feet. Between 1987-2007, it was deepened again to 50 feet.2
The 11-mile long Atlantic Ocean Channel, from the deep ocean to the Thimble Shoals channel, was authorized in 1986. It was dredged in 2006 to 52 feet deep, and is authorized (but not funded) to be deepened to 57 feet.
A 50-foot deep shipping channel is currently maintained from Thimble Shoals to Norfolk and Newport News by regularly dredging the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay, Elizabeth River, and James River. The inbound channel above the Thimble Shoals tunnel of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel is 350 feet wide and 50 feet deep, while the outbound channel is 650 feet wide and 50 feet deep.
One of the 45 harbor pilots based at Lynnhaven Inlet in Virginia Beach guides vessels the 11 miles through the Atlantic Ocean Channel, 12 miles through the Thimble Shoals Channel, and the remaining 5 miles to the terminal where cargo is unloaded and loaded.
Dredging to 55 feet and widening the channel to 1,000 feet was authorized when the US Congress passed the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) of 1986. Getting the funding is a separate exercise than getting authorization for a river and harbor project. The US Congress has appropriated enough funding to dredge a 50-foot deep channel, but not deeper.
A key step is obtaining Federal funding was crossed in 2018, when the Army Corps of Engineers endorsed the deepening/widening project. That cleared the way for including it in the next Water Resources Development Act to e passed by the US Congress.
The Virginia General Assembly acted earlier in 2018 to commit state funding; the 2018-20 biennial budget included $350 million for the channel deepening project. The state projected that bigger ships using a deeper channel could bring another 1,000,000 containers to the Port of Virginia, increasing capacity by 40%3
the US Army Corps of Engineers dredges the shipping channels in Hampton Roads
Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Bathymetric Data Viewer
A 1,500 feet wide and 50-foot deep channel is maintained to Norfolk International Terminals (NIT). A narrower 800-foot wide and 50-foot deep channel extends south to Norfolk Southern's piers for coal exports at Lambert's Point. The Elizabeth River is dredged to its southern end, to maintain a 250-foot wide, 35-foot channel to the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway.
Thanks to the dredging, Norfolk Southern can load outbound coal ships at Lamberts Point so the bottoms sink 50-feet deep into the water at high tide. Some coal ships calling at the terminal are large enough to be loaded with enough coal to require a 60-foot draft.
Because container ships are harder to maneuver in the channels, inbound and outbound container may require no more depth than 49 feet, 3 inches of water at high tide. Ships with a draft no greater than 47 feet may use the channels at low tide.4
The 800-foot wide, 50-foot channel to Newport News International Terminal (NNIT) is also authorized (but unfunded) for deepening to 55 feet.5
Craney Island, like the Norfolk Navy Yard, is located within the city boundaries of Portsmouth - across the Elizabeth River from the Norfolk Naval Base within the city of Norfolk
Source: US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), Wetlands Mapper
Since 1957, mud, sand, rocks, shells, and other material scraped up from the bottom ("dredge spoils") has been deposited into one of three cells at the Craney Island Dredged Material Management Area. One cell receives fresh dredge spoils, while two others dry out.
The Corps identified that the Craney Island site would reach capacity in 2025, and the Virginia Port Authority predicted that its Hampton Roads terminals would reach capacity in 2011 and a new terminal was needed. The Corps had a solution to both problems: expand the Craney Island disposal site eastward into the Elizabeth River and construct of a new marine terminal on the newly-formed land created from dredge spoils.
Congress approved the plan, though funding for full implementation is not guaranteed. The urgency of the Virginia Port Authority to construct the Craney Island Marine Terminal before 2028 eased after the state agency extended the lease of the privately-owned Virginia International Gateway (VIG) terminal in Portsmouth from 2028 to the year 2065.6
Savannah processes more Twenty-foot Equivalent Units (TEU's) in international trade than Norfolk, but that statistic does not include break bulk cargo
Source: US Department of Transportation, Maritime Administration, U.S. Waterborne Foreign Container Trade by U.S. Custom Ports)
the slow recovery from the 2008-2011 recession triggered proposals to privatize the state-owned terminals in Hampton Roads
Source: Virginia Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC), Special Report: Review of Recent Reports on the Virginia Port Authority’s Operations (Table 1)
Norfolk has an even balance of container imports and exports, unlike the ports at Los Angeles
Source: US Army Corps of Engineers Waterborne Commerce Statistics Center, U.S. Waterborne Container Traffic by Port/Waterway in 2011
Norfolk's competitors are not just Savannah, Baltimore, New York/New Jersey, or even the Gulf Coast ports such as New Orleans. Ships can steam across the Pacific Ocean to West Coast ports in 12 days. Containers can be carried from Los Angeles, Seattle, or other West Coast ports by train/truck to East Coast destinations in another 5-8 days. Ships going through the Panama Canal to an East Coast port require 24 days.
Widening of the Panama Canal was expected to divert ships from West Coast ports such as Los Angeles to the East Coast, with containers carried by Post Panamax Generation 3 vessels (PPX3) rather than rail to customers east of the Mississippi River. In 2017, the first year after the expanded canal opened, container traffic at East Coast ports increased because overall customer demand increased - not because ships previously going to the West Coast changed destinations. The Panama Canal did see an increase in shipping, but it was due to ships that previously had traveled via the Suez Canal choosing to go in the other direction.7
California ports dominate the foreign container trade, as measured in twenty-foot equivalent units (TEU's), reflecting the significance of Asian imports
Source: U.S. Department of Transportation, Research and Innovative Technology Administration, America's Container Ports: Linking Markets at Home and Abroad (Figure 2, January 2011)
Hampton Roads has advertised a 50-foot outbound channel since it was dredged in 1989 to accommodate large ships exporting heavy loads of coal, and a 50-foot inbound channel since 2007. Norfolk International Terminals (NIT) has loaded container vessels that required a 49-foot channel to exit through the Chesapeake Bay.
The Port of Virginia competes with other states in part because no other port exceeds the depth of the Hampton Roads channel. A least one shipping line designed port visits to include a "last stop" at Norfolk, topping off a large container ship's load there because other ports with shallower channels could not accommodate a fully-loaded vessel.
The Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel under the Thimble Shoal Channel, the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel under the Norfolk Harbor Channel, and Monitor-Merrimac Bridge-Tunnel under the Newport News Channel are buried at least 63 feet deep below the bottom, so the challenge is financial rather than physical. Virginia's elected officials and business leaders consistently lobby the US Congress to fund its already-authorized plans to dredge the inbound and outbound channels to 55 feet and widen the channels so large ships could maneuver safely.
With a deeper and wider shipping channel, Virginia could compete better against Baltimore, Miami, and New York/New Jersey, the three rival East Coast ports that also have 50-foot deep shipping channels.
the planned submarine cable to bring electricity onshore from offshore wind turbines (highlighted with red line) was routed to avoid the deep inbound channel dredged by the US Army Corps of Engineers in the Outer Continental Shelf
Source: Dominion, "Virginia Offshore Wind Technology Advancement Project," Offshore Constraints
The existing 50-foot deep shipping channel allowed the Port of Virginia could grow beyond its former capacity to handle a 10,000 TEU ship (i.e., carrying 5,000 containers that were each 40-feet long). Once the port increased container-handling equipment and procedures for moving containers on land, it was able to attract ships carrying 13,000-14,000 TEU's each week, starting in 2017.
The Virginia Maritime Association still described widening and deepening the channel as the #1 priority for upgrading port infrastructure at Hampton Roads. During part of the four hours required to move an Ultra-Large Container Vessel (ULCV) 28 miles from the Atlantic Ocean to the Norfolk International Terminal (NIT), the 1,000-foot wide channel is made into a one-way route at the Thimble Shoal islands of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel. Restricting that traffic flow delays other vessels.
The Virginia Maritime Association advocated that the Corps of Engineers and Port of Virginia expand the 2018 update to studies proposing to deepen the channel to 55 feet, and to include a proposal to dredge the Thimble Shoal to 1,400 feet wide. That would eliminate the one-way bottleneck.
widening the Thimble Shoal channel 400 more feet would allow two-way traffic of Ultra-Large Container Vessels (ULCV's)
Source: Virginia Business, Tight Squeeze (August 30, 2017)
The proposal for a 1,400 feet wide channel represents the maximium possible width. In 2017, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel began constructing a new tunnel at Thimble Shoal, parallel to the existing tunnel. The new tunnel will use the existing man-made islands at either end, which currently accommodate a 1,000-wide navigation channel. There is a limit to how far the Thimble Shoal shipping channel can be widened without building another set of islands and replacing very expensive underwater tunnels.8
the Thimble Shoal channel between the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel islands is 1,000 feet wide
Source: OceanGrafix, Chesapeake Bay Thimble Shoal Channel (NOAA Nautical Chart 12256)
construction began in 2017 of a parallel tunnel at the Thimble Shoal channel, using existing islands and assuming no widening of the channel beyond 1,000 feet
Source: Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel Commission, Request For Qualifications Showing (May 28, 2015)
In late 2017, the US Army Corps of Engineers recommended channel alterations in Hampton Roads that included widening the Thimble Shoal channel to 1,200 feet. Dredged materials ("spoil") would be deposited at the Dam Neck Ocean Disposal Site, the Norfolk Ocean Disposal Site, or the Craney Island Dredged Material Management Area.
in 2017, the US Army Corps of Engineers recommended further widening and deepening of Hampton Roads shipping channels
Source: US Army Corps of Engineers, Norfolk Harbor Navigation Improvements - Draft General Reevaluation Report and Environmental Assessment (Figure 1-1)
Overall, the changes would cost over $320 million, and the Corps estimated a benefit/cost ratio over the next 50 years of 4.93 (assuming interest rates at 2.75%). The Federal government would pay 45.6% and the state would pick up the remaining costs for:9
The Corps committed to develop recommendations for the Elizabeth River Southern Branch (ERSB) Navigation Improvements project in a separate study.
the US Congress has authorized dredging existing Hampton Roads shipping channels beyond their current dimensions, but has not funded further expansion
Source: US Army Corps of Engineers, Norfolk Harbor Navigation Improvements - Draft General Reevaluation Report and Environmental Assessment (Figure 1-2)
in 2017, the US Army Corps of Engineers recommended deepening and widening existing shipping channels at Hampton Roads more than currently authorized
Source: US Army Corps of Engineers, Norfolk Harbor Navigation Improvements - Draft General Reevaluation Report and Environmental Assessment (Table 1-1)
Constant dredging is required to keep the channels at their advertised depth. The US Army Corps on Engineers calculates every year which portion of which channel needs maintenance.
On occasion, emergency dredging is required. In 2011, a bulk carrier loaded with coal ran aground in the middle of the Thimble Shoals channel. The ship required only 47 feet of depth, so no one expected it to hit bottom in the 50-foot channel. Slumping sediments and Chesapeake Bay currents had filled the channel until it was only 41.1 feet deep.
The ship anchored to assess damage, which is standard operating procedure. The collier immediately became a roadblock in the shipping lane and threated to shut down traffic, causing very expensive delays in commercial shipments and preventing US Navy vessels from making scheduled port calls. Tugs pulled the ship free at high tide, the Corps directed hopper dredges working nearby to scrape out the channel to its standard depth and width, and delays ended up being minimal.10
Disposal of materials dredged from the shipping channels requires a permit from the US Army Corps on Engineers. If deposited in the ocean, only sites authorized by the Environmental Protection Agency may be used.11
When not needed for beneficial uses to widen the beach at Virginia Beach, Willoughby Spit, and Sandbridge or to construct dikes at the Craney Island Dredged Material Management Area, the excess dredge spoils from the Atlantic Ocean Channel and the clay-rich material dredged from the Thimble Shoal Channel are deposited at the nearby Dam Neck Ocean Disposal Site (DNODS).
Spoils from dredging between Sewells Point and Lamberts Point on the Elizabeth River, the Newport News channel, and the associated anchorages are deposited at the Craney Island Dredged Material Management Area. Costs to haul the dredge spoils to an alternative disposal site in the Atlantic Ocean would be higher, and some of the material is too contaminated from old industrial operations around the harbors to permit disposal at sea.
sediments dredged from the Elizabeth River, the Newport News shipping channel, and associated anchorages are deposited at the Craney Island Dredged Material Management Area
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online
Some sediments are dumped at the Dam Neck Ocean Disposal Site (DNODS), also known as the Dam Neck Ocean Dredged Material Disposal Site (ODMDS) and the Dam Neck Dredged Material Area (DNDMA). An alternative location, further offshore, is the Norfolk Ocean Dredged Material Disposal Site.12
sediments dredged to maintain ship channels in Hampton Roads can be deposited in multiple locations
Source: US Army Corps of Engineers, Dredged Material Placement Options
One factor in dredging at Hampton Roads is the risk if unexploded ordinance. Since colonial days, shells fired into the water have sunk to the bottom without exploding. Though many have been waterlogged and become inert, dredge boat captains know that they may retrieve some shells that could be dangerous.
Over 200 hundred underwater mines planted to deter German submarines during World War II were never recovered, and both torpedoes and depth charges may be encountered. In 1965, eight men were killed when a trawler dredging for scallops snagged a torpedo 58 miles southeast of the Atlantic Ocean Channel.13
The Corps of Engineers has identified a variety of historic shipwrecks to avoid when dredging or depositing spoils from the channels. One archeological resource is the remains of the U.S.S. Cumberland, a Union ship sunk by the new C.S.S. Virginia ironclad in the Civil War.
Two major fiber optic lines, buried less than five feet deep on the Outer Continental Shelf, now link Virginia Beach to Europe and South America. The MAREA link connects to Bilbao, Spain. The BRUSA link connects to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Both are south of the Atlantic Ocean Channel, but pass through the Dam Neck Ocean Disposal Site.14
All ports know that Federal funding to deepen shipping channels could enhance or erode competitive advantages. The other two main competitors to the Port of Virginia, Charleston and Savannah, have their own plans to attract the largest container ships to the East Coast.
Charleston had obtained Federal funding to deepen its channel from 45-feet to 50-feet, but that was not enough for South Carolina. The state agreed to pay 100% of the extra cost required to dredge an extra two feet. Charleston plans for fully-loaded ships to have a 52' deep channel to move at low tides, as well as at high tides. The US Congress authorized the 52' channel in 2016.15
a Digital Elevation Model (DEM) of Hampton Roads reveals artificially-straight dredged ship channels, plus tunnels constructed underneath two channels for the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel linking Virginia Beach to the Eastern Shore
Source: South Atlantic Fishery Management Council, Essential Fish Habitat Viewer
Savannah, Georgia has a 23-mile channel from ocean to port. When the channel was deepened from 38 feet to 42 feet in 1994, the goal was to service ships carrying up to 4,000 TEU's. By 2013, ships calling at Savannah arrived with less than a full load. They could carry up to 8,100 TEU's, if the channel was 48-feet deep.
Savannah has received Federal approval to deepen the channel from 42 feet to 47 feet, with 60% funded by the Federal government and 40% by the Georgia Port Authority. All projects to deepen channels require arrangements for dredge spoil disposal, but each port has unique environmental mitigation requirements. Currents in a deeper-dredged Savannah River could result in oxygen-starved zones underwater, so that channel will not be dredged to the full depth of 48 feet as authorized by Congress. Georgia may have to build underwater oxygen bubblers to maintain a minimum level of 4 milligrams of oxygen per liter in the deeper channel.16
Getting Federal support to deepen shipping channels or upgrade on-shore infrastructure (such as rail/road connections) requires lobbyists in Washington, who advocate for staff to include specific language in authorization/appropriation legislation, then encourage Members of Congress to approve funding that benefits a specific port.
Representatives of all ports in serious competition for Federal funding must educate Congressional staff and members on the economic potential of port expansion - "if only Federal funding were provided to (...insert name of port here...), then (...insert what good things would happen there...)."
gantry cranes move containers from ships to chassis bodies on the wharves, and the chassis bodies are then moved to a location where containers can be loaded onto trucks or rail cars
Source: Virginia Port Authority, Comprehensive Annual Financial Report for the Virginia Port Authority for the Fiscal Year Ended June 30, 2014
The Virginia Port Authority has planned for expansion, particularly for processing containerized cargo from the supersized ships that started to arrive after widening of the Panama Canal. The port predicted that the number of containers to be processed would triple between 2015-2035.
Larger ships will bring more containers, and the Virginia Port Authority seeks to increase the number of visiting ships to more than 2,000/year. To handle the extra containers, capacity at the Norfolk International Terminal (NIT) and Virginia International Gateway (VIG) were doubled with new equipment.
roughly half of the capital investments to expand capacity at the Port of Virginia will come from profits generated by the port's operations; 46% of the funding will be state/Federal subsidies (CPF = Commonwealth Port Fund, established by new transportation taxes in 1986)
Source: Port of Virginia 2065 Master Plan
In 2016, the first ship with a 10,000 TEU capacity arrived at Norfolk International Terminal (NIT). In 2017 the COSCO Development, a 13,000 TEU ship, arrived at the Virginia International Gateway (VIG) terminal. That ship's routine stops included Hong Kong, Yantian, Ningbo, Shanghai, Panama, Virginia, Georgia and South Carolina.
the 2017 visit of the COSCO Development, with a 13,000 TEU capacity, demonstrated Norfolk could handle the largest container ships that could pass through the widened Panama Canal
Source: Virginia Port Authority, Biggest Vessel in Port's History Calls; Governor, Dignitaries Herald Arrival of 13,000-TEU COSCO Development
New York/New Jersey was not on the rotation in early 2017 because the project to raise the Bayonne Bridge had not been completed yet. Ships carrying more than 9,800 TEU could not enter the New York/New Jersey harbor until later in 2017, giving Virginia a head start in building trade relationships. Once the bridge was raised, the shipping line altered its sequence for ports of call for large vessels such as the COSCO Development. It made New York/New Jersey first, then Norfolk, Savannah, and finally Charleston.
Only a small portion of the cargo of the supersized container ships is offloaded in Hampton Roads. The COSCO Development was expected to transfer only 4,000 containers on its regular visits to Virginia International Gateway (VIG). Nonetheless, the executive director of the Virginia Port Authority said happily:17
By 2018, shippers had relied upon specialized container ships for 60 years. The largest container ship in the world could carry over 20,000 Twenty-Foot Equivalent Units (TEU's), and Virginia port officials were considering how to load/unload ships with a capacity of 16,000-18,000 TEU's.
Over the next 50 years, a consulting firm projected construction of significantly larger ships capable of carrying 50,000 TEU's. Such a size increase would require significant revision of gantries and infrastructure at a shipping terminal, and dredging even deeper channels through the Chesapeake Bay and Elizabeth River.18
container ships stop at a scheduled sequence of ports, loading/offloading only a percentage of their containers during each stop
Source: Maersk, TP16 Eastbound
The Craney Island Marine Terminal (CIMT) could be designed from the beginning to accommodate larger ships. The Virginia Port Authority and the Corps of Engineers will continue the Craney Island Eastward Expansion project, so the terminal could be built when justified by demand for extra container processing capacity.
Portsmouth Marine Terminal (PMT) and Newport News Marine Terminal (NNMT) will be enhanced to process non-containerized cargo, including break-bulk operations (cargo not packaged in containers) and "roll on, roll off" cargo such as cars imported from Japan.19
the proposed Craney Island Marine Terminal (CIMT) would add a fourth terminal for processing containers at Hampton Roads (Newport News handles primarily Ro-Ro and break-bulk cargo)
Source: US Army Corps of Engineers, Norfolk Harbor Navigation Improvements - Draft General Reevaluation Report and Environmental Assessment (Figure 3-1)
If the deepest water for containers ships was at Hampton Roads, then shipping companies could design their routes so the terminals in Norfolk, Portsmouth, and Newport News would be "first-in, last-out." Vessels importing the most containers would stop first in Virginia. Ships headed back to Europe, Asia, or elsewhere would get their last containers from a Port of Virginia terminal.
Many ships already follow that route design. Just having a deeper channel might not help the Port of Virginia compete if other ports also get deeper channels. Virginia and Georgia have chosen to partner in order to compete with New York/New Jersey and Charleston. The Georgia Ports Authority and the Virginia Port Authority created a East Coast Gateway Terminal Agreement in 2017 to coordinate the arrival of ships, so large customers such as Wal*Mart could maximize the efficiency of container distribution to warehouses along the East Coast.
tourists could see ships using the Thimble Shoal channel, until Island 1 was closed in 2017 for construction of a parallel tunnel
The Federal Maritime Commission approved the deal, claiming that exchange of information was intended to enhance supply chain logistics. Since the two ports could not set joint prices, the Federal agency concluded that the agreement did not create unfair competition for other ports.
In South Carolina, which in 2017 started building a second inland port at Dillon on I-95 comparable to the Virginia Inland Port at Front Royal, others saw the agreement as an effort to "crowd out" the port at Charleston. Consolidation in the maritime industry and Post-Panamax container vessels were predicted to reduce the number of ports visited by the larger ships, and the Virginia Port Authority chose to partner with Savannah rather than Charleston.20
Competition for Federal funding to deepen shipping channels is based on the claim that each port needs to dredge deeper in order to accommodate the bigger container ships. However, the COSCO Development required 44 feet or less when it visited Norfolk for the first time in 2017.
The original justification for a deeper channel in the Elizabeth and James rivers was the need to accommodate larger ships exporting Appalachian Plateau coal to foreign markets. Containers can be much lighter in weight than coal, so the need for a deeper channel for the Post-Panamax container vessels has been questioned.
The largest ships force port officials to convert Thimble Shoal Channel into a one-way channel. That delays traffic, but a key Port of Virginia argument is that a 55-foot channel is needed so Ultra-Large Container Vessels (ULCV's) can sail without waiting for the tide:21
the Port of Virginia is the beginning and the end of key roads and rail lines in Virginia
Source: 2015 Governor's Transportation Conference, Port of Virginia Final Video
New York/New Jersey attracts ships as a "first-in" site because its high population means many containers are directed to warehouses in that area. Savannah attracts ships because so many distribution centers for the southeastern US are clustered there. Congress is at risk of providing more funding than is required to meet shipping infrastructure needs Politics may end up directing Federal subsidies so one or more ports become "winners" with the deepest channels, while others are left behind.
Despite a 1994 state law prohibiting Virginia state agencies from hiring lobbyists, in 2013 it was revealed that the Virginia Port Authority was paying for such services. The state agency tasked its engineering contractor to perform advocacy to legislators, paying a 15% surcharge for the engineering contractor to make arrangements with a standard lobbying firm.
The Virginia Attorney General concluded the arrangement did not violate state law, because it defined "lobbying" as efforts to influence state officials while the port agency was only trying to influence Federal officials. As the chair of the Virginia Port Authority stated:22
Savannah's channel was deepened in 1994 from 38' to 42' to service ships carrying 4,500 Twenty-foot Equivalent Units (TEU's), but Norfolk is targeting ships with three times that number
Source: Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, Draft 2013 Virginia Statewide Rail Plan (Figure ES-4)
The US Congress may choose to fund multiple channel deepening projects at multiple East Coast ports. Polticians from Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and New Jersey/New York desire for the Corps of Engineers to deepen channels to their ports. Multiple projects would increase costs and dilute the economic benefits, but funds for channel deepening could be decided by political calculus more than cost-benefit studies.
In addition to the advantages of margeting the "deepest port on the East Coast," the ego of regional leaders, could also be a factor. As a Virginia Business article noted:23
In 2018, the Virginia General Assembly authorized $350 million in state funding (including $330 million in state-backed bonds) for deeping the channels to 55 feet and widening to 1,400 feet. However, the 2019-20 Federal budget proposed by President Trump included no funding for Norfolk, but did include proposed funding for the rival ports of Boston, Charleston, and Savannah.
State officials chose to start dredging the Thimble Shoal channel to 56 feet in depth anyway, and anticipate getting the Federal share of funding later. One supporter was Rep. Rob Wittman, who introduced legislation to provide $4 billion in funding for Virginia's port projects.
In 2018, the US Army Corps of Engineers had authorized deepening the Thimble Shoals channel to 56 feet, deepening other channels closer to the terminals to 55 feet, and dredging the Atlantic Channel offshore to 59 feet. The problem then became Federal0 funding, not Federal approval.
The worst case scenario for Port of Virginia officials was not that Virginia would have to absorb 100% of the cost. Even worse was the risk that the competing ports would complete their channel deepening projects first, and oceean shippers would make Virginia's ports just a secondary destination.24
evolution of container ships - and future, post-Panamax size
Source: Captain J. William Cofer presentation to Virginia Port Authority Virginia's Offshore Fairways (November 27, 2012)
1. "Shipping leaders want Hampton Roads to have the deepest water on the East Coast. But is it worth it?,"The Virginian-Pilot, June 25, 2016, https://pilotonline.com/business/ports-rail/shipping-leaders-want-hampton-roads-to-have-the-deepest-water/article_5636f1b6-70fc-5a30-9cf4-17ddd8e94c68.html; "Flying Up Down East," Marketplace, https://features.marketplace.org/american_futures/; "When Rails Make the Difference, From Down East to the Southwest," The Atlantic, December 16, 2013, http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/12/when-rails-make-the-difference-from-down-east-to-the-southwest/282359/; "American Futures: Eastport's big bet on global trade (plus, a quiz!)," The Atlantic, October 25, 2013, http://www.marketplace.org/topics/world/american-futures-eastports-big-bet-global-trade; "About the Port," The Port of Los Angeles, https://www.portoflosangeles.org/about/facts.asp (last checked December 22, 2013)
2. "Norfolk Harbor Navigation Improvements - Draft General Reevaluation Report and Environmental Assessment," US Army Corps of Engineers, November 7, 2017, p.44, http://www.nao.usace.army.mil/Portals/31/docs/civilworks/NrflkHrbrDeepening/Norfolk_Harbor_GRR_EA_Report.pdf; "Port's quest to go deeper and wider is, in some ways, an old story," The Virginian-Pilot, December 30, 2017, https://pilotonline.com/business/ports-rail/article_82d53775-a4ed-5852-a10b-99ad1edc3213.html (last checked January 24, 2018)
3. "Port Facilities," Port of Virginia Annual 2013, Virginia Maritime Association, 2013, p.21-22, http://c.ymcdn.com/sites/www.vamaritime.com/resource/resmgr/pa2013/pa2013_port_facilities.pdf; "Norfolk Harbor Navigation Improvements - Draft General Reevaluation Report and Environmental Assessment," US Army Corps of Engineers, November 7, 2017, p.2, http://www.nao.usace.army.mil/Portals/31/docs/civilworks/NrflkHrbrDeepening/Norfolk_Harbor_GRR_EA_Report.pdf; "Tight squeeze," Virginia Business, August 30, 2017, http://www.virginiabusiness.com/news/article/tight-squeeze; "Virginia budget includes $350 million for Norfolk port-deepening project," The Virginian-Pilot, June 5, 2015, https://pilotonline.com/business/ports-rail/article_1f176176-681d-11e8-9f16-675e011f36a6.html; "Port of Virginia deepening project receives U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approval," Virginia Business, July 3, 2018, http://www.virginiabusiness.com/news/article/332713 (last checked July 3, 2018)
4. "Port Facilities," Port of Virginia Annual 2013, Virginia Maritime Association, 2013, p.21 http://c.ymcdn.com/sites/www.vamaritime.com/resource/resmgr/pa2013/pa2013_port_facilities.pdf; "Norfolk Harbor Navigation Improvements - Draft General Reevaluation Report and Environmental Assessment," US Army Corps of Engineers, November 7, 2017, pp.7-8, http://www.nao.usace.army.mil/Portals/31/docs/civilworks/NrflkHrbrDeepening/Norfolk_Harbor_GRR_EA_Report.pdf (last checked November 11, 2017)
5. "Port Facilities," Port of Virginia Annual 2013, Virginia Maritime Association, 2013, p.22 http://c.ymcdn.com/sites/www.vamaritime.com/resource/resmgr/pa2013/pa2013_port_facilities.pdf (last checked June 13, 2013)
6. "Project Overview," The Craney Island Eastward Expansion, US Army Corps of Engineers/Virginia Port Authority, http://www.craneyisland.info/overview.html; "Historical Vignette 072 - the Channels of Hampton Roads Open," US Army Corps of Engineers, http://www.usace.army.mil/About/History/HistoricalVignettes/CivilEngineering/072ChannelsofHamptonRoads.aspx (last checked June 13, 2013)
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