The Port of Virginia has launched a dredging project that is intended to make it the deepest cargo port on the U.S. East Coast and to offer improved infrastructure to the ever-larger container ships handling imports and exports.
Dredges took to the water on Dec. 1 to begin digging, commencing the $78 million first phase of a plan to deepen the waters to 55 feet, the port said Monday.
The deepening effort got underway in 2015 when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the port agreed to share the cost of evaluating the benefits of dredging the Norfolk Harbor to a depth beyond 50 feet. The total cost of the project, including the preliminary engineering and design work, is forecast at $350 million.
The work that started Sunday will deepen the western side of Thimble Shoal Channel, which leads into the Norfolk Harbor, to 56 feet. When dredging is complete in 2024, the commercial channels serving the Norfolk Harbor will be able to simultaneously accommodate two ultra-large container vessels at once.
The dredging project takes place as many ports race to accommodate the deeper vessel drafts enabled by the 2016 expansion of the Panama Canal.
While previous "Panamax" containerships could be accommodated by a 35-foot channel, more recent designs carry many more shipping containers. Ships carrying more than 5,000 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) require a depth of 42 feet, and those holding above 10,000 TEUs require a depth of 50 feet, according to "The Geography of Transport Systems," a book by Jean-Paul Rodrigue, professor of geography at Hofstra University.
Channel depth limitations at east coast ports currently top out at Halifax's 55 feet, and 50 feet at Baltimore, Hampton Roads, and New York, the book says. Other sources list additional east coast ports with depths of 50 feet including: the Port of Miami, Norfolk International Terminals, Port Newark's Elizabeth Marine Terminal, and Port Jersey.
"This project, combined with all of the investments we are making at our terminals, tells the ocean carriers 'we are ready for your big ships'," John F. Reinhart, the Virginia Port Authority's CEO and executive director, said in a release."The container ships are getting bigger and require more water depth to safely operate and we are committed to working with our customers to meet their needs today, tomorrow and decades from now."
Virginia expects to gain a "significant competitive advantage" by granting the safe, two-way flow of ultra-large container vessels, unrestricted by tide or channel width, Reinhart said.
"The cargo flowing across our terminals is valuable to its owners and the Virginia economy, so we are investing in those systems that ensure the efficient, reliable and safe movement of cargo and ships to and from our port," Reinhart said. "We are positioning ourselves to be East Coast's premier trade gateway. Deep, wide channels will support many Virginia businesses and fuel cargo growth, job creation and economic investment across the Commonwealth. "
Editor's note: This article was revised on Dec. 3 to add information about comparitive port depths.