Ports’ future calls for careful decisions

Published 9:53 pm Friday, June 29, 2012

Considering that Suffolk lies well inland of either the Atlantic Ocean or the Chesapeake Bay, it seems a bit counterintuitive to suggest that the city’s future is tied to shipping. But economic development officials at all levels of government have recognized for some time just how vital the city and its neighbors in Western Tidewater will be to the future of that industry. During a public information session in Windsor this week, the point was made in explicit terms.

Describing the rush of companies building distribution centers in Western Tidewater, Greg Byrd of Suffolk’s economic development office said, “They are building distribution space in a major way that they haven’t in previous years. It isn’t just a matter of hoping or wishing — the time is upon us….”

The evidence is clear with a drive down Holland Road or Nansemond Parkway or a foray into industrial parks scattered around Suffolk and Windsor. Massive new buildings are springing up to serve Ace Hardware, the Navy Exchange and a slew of other companies. They have found a place to take the containers delivered by huge ships to Hampton Roads’ ports and divide their contents into trucks and railway containers for shipment around the nation. Some of those new distribution centers will do just the opposite, taking goods made here in America, packing them into containers and sending them to the ports for shipment overseas to international markets.

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Even without a port facility of its own, Suffolk is on the cusp of becoming one of the major players in the shipping industry. That’s one of the major factors in the governor’s continuing press for upgrades to Route 460, and the need for efficient handling of cargo is a driving force behind other initiatives, as well, from the improvement of Elizabeth River crossings to the expansion of Craney Island.

The decisions made on these projects will ripple through the coming decades in ways that even the most astute economic development officials can hardly imagine. A wrong turn along the path that lies ahead for Hampton Roads and Western Tidewater will lead to lost opportunities and expensive detours. Similar problems await the region if important decisions are postponed out of sheer inertia.

The commonwealth must, therefore, put many great minds to work on the problems of traffic, privatization of important infrastructure and accessibility of resources. These are not issues that should be settled by fiat, nor can they be allowed to languish in committee rooms while the other great port facilities of the East Coast gear up for the shipping boom that is expected in the coming decades.

Virginia must take a smart, considered approach to planning this next phase of port-related development in Hampton Roads. Such an approach requires getting a variety of perspectives on the issues at hand, acting decisively on the recommendations that follow and not allowing the arbitrary deadlines of those looking to make a quick profit on the shipping boom to set the pace of decisions.

There is much to be excited about when it comes to the future of shipping in Virginia. But the commonwealth cannot afford to allow that excitement to result in poor decisions that will prove unprofitable for taxpayers in the long run.