The Port of Norfolk, Va., is prepared to take over the operations of its struggling port rival in Richmond with the goal of expanding the frequency of its "marine highway" service linking the two ports, the Virginia Port Authority's (VPA) number-two executive said Friday.
Jeff J. Keever, the senior deputy executive director at the VPA, which operates port facilities in Norfolk, Portsmouth, and Newport News, said he expects that by Jan. 1, the VPA will have entered into a lease agreement with the city of Richmond which currently runs the port to operate the facility.
By mid-2011, the VPA expects to add a second weekly service to ferry cargo between Norfolk and Richmond via barge, Keever said in an interview at the VPA's headquarters in Norfolk. A round-trip service currently operates every Monday between the two ports, handling about 100 containers in each direction. Richmond and Norfolk are about 100 driving miles apart.
The overriding goal of using marine highway routes otherwise known as "short-sea" shipping is to remove freight from interstate highways and onto coastal waterways, thus reducing road congestion and cutting carbon emissions.
In this case, the objective is to take trucks off Interstate 64, a congested east-west highway that feeds into Interstate 95, a north-south corridor that runs through Richmond. Trailers that would normally be trucked between the two cities are diverted to barge services operating on the James River just south of Richmond.
The barge service puts trailers in close proximity to I-95 at Richmond, allowing them to head out to destinations up and down the East Coast. Currently, containerized imports entering the Port of Norfolk must be trucked nearly three hours to get to the closest north-south interstate connection.
"The short-sea service "can save shippers and retailers as much as three hours in transit times," said Joe Harris, a VPA spokesman.
Keever said he envisions Richmond evolving into an inland port in much the same way as Front Royal, also owned by the VPA and located an hour west of Washington, D.C., in Warren County. The Front Royal facility serves as a distribution hub for companies such as Home Depot Co., Family Dollar, Sysco Foods, and DuPont Co.
The project is backed by Sean Connaughton, currently Virginia's secretary of transportation and former Maritime Administrator under President George W. Bush. In April, Connaughton expressed interest in the VPA's taking over the Port of Richmond.
Supporters of the marine highway concept argue that the nation's barge network is vastly underutilized, with the 25,000 miles of navigable U.S. waterways handling 1.4 billion tons of freight each year, equal to only 2 percent of the nation's domestic shipments. Because one barge tow can accommodate 456 containers that might otherwise move by truck, shifting even a modest amount of cargo to water would be both cost-effective and environmentally friendly, backers say.
The concept has been praised by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. So far, $127 million in federal stimulus dollars have been earmarked for short-sea shipping projects.
The Port of Richmond, on the James River south of downtown off I-95, is managed by the Port of Richmond Commission and operated by PCI of Virginia LLC, a private company.
The port has struggled in recent years to keep and attract traffic. In 2009, it lost its largest customer, Independent Container Line, which defected to the Port of Wilmington, N.C.
The Port of Richmond's financial situation became so dire that it had to take out a line of credit to remain in business, VPA sources say.