Public speaks on port bids

Published 10:30 pm Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Virginia Port Authority Board of Commissioners hears what the maritime community and private citizens think about competing bids to privatize port operations, during a public hearing at Nauticus Thursday.

The general public had its first opportunity Thursday to tell Port of Virginia authorities their thoughts on competing bids to privatize operation of the Commonwealth’s sea freight terminals.

Forty-three people had registered to speak at the Virginia Port Authority public hearing inside the Nauticus theater in Norfolk, many of them from port-related groups such as shipping lines.

Most of those who made good on their intention to address the audience and port Board of Commissioners were overwhelmingly — and often passionately — opposed to privatization.

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The hearing also gave current port operator Virginia International Terminals (VIT) a chance to state its case to be allowed to continue in the role.

The private entity established by the Commonwealth has worked “for one thing — the benefit of this port … and everybody in this state,” said Joe Dorto, its president and chief executive officer, who received a standing ovation.

“I’m here to speak for the employees of VIT,” whom no one has heard from “because they are not allowed to speak,” Dorto said.

“Even through all this, the employees of VPA (the Virginia Port Authority) and VIT show up to work and do the best they can to make the port the best in the country.”

VIT is fighting for its future after the state earlier this year received an unsolicited bid under its Public-Private Transportation Act from Danish shipping giant Maersk subsidiary APM, owner of APM Terminals Virginia. Counterbids from the Carlyle Group and RREEF America followed.

At stake is the right to operate port facilities for up to 50 years, with the trio offering the state from $1.8 billion, Carlyle’s minimum estimate, up to $4.661 billion, in the case of RREEF. Each proposal also has its own additional nuances.

Thomas Little, international vice president for Hampton Roads of The International Longshoremen’s Association, said port workers are willing to work with whichever group is selected but are upset that they have not been involved in the selection process.

Larry Ewan, from coffee and cocoa warehousing company Continental Terminals, expressed “real concerns … that APM will create an unfavorable competitive environment,” concerns many other speakers also voiced.

Private citizen Bill Jackson said, “We consider our port the greatest natural resource that the Commonwealth has. I own it and you own it. How can we let one or two individuals … sell it?”

Cosco Container Lines Americas’ Mike Abbott said that VIT, which is under fire as container volumes lag behind pre-Great Recession levels, should be asked to make improvements “before scrapping what has been a very successfully operation.”

The hearing had been allotted three hours but ran shorter. Toward the end, a handful of private-citizen speakers were supportive of APM’s bid, including a woman describing herself as a nurse. “I think it’s time that we stop making excuses for VIT and change the system,” she said. “APM seems to take safety just as seriously as I do.”

Others said Virginia needs APM’s proven expertise to remain competitive in a global industry.

Various speakers said that if it opts for privatization, the state will forsake much more than it will get, with the port destined to be the only on the East Coast able to handle a new breed of larger cargo ships demanding a 55-foot depth.

In the next step of the evaluation process, detailed proposals from bidders are due Nov. 1.