Harnessing Panama’s potential

Published 10:58 pm Thursday, October 18, 2012

A roundtable at Suffolk’s downtown-area Hilton Garden Inn Thursday involved heavy hitters in the realms of transportation, commerce, public policy and private enterprise, who discussed how Virginia could better capitalize on a canal expansion in Central America.

U.S. Senator John Boozman of Arkansas, previously the ranking member of the U.S. House of Representatives Water Resources Subcommittee, was a special guest for the discussion on the Panama Canal expansion with respect to East Coast ports, hosted by Congressman Randy Forbes.

Other guests included Port of Virginia officials, local government elected and appointed officials from Hampton Roads, and folks from trucking companies and associations, the International Longshoremen’s Association, retailers, railroads and other port-related organizations.

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Two Ghana Investment Promotion Center representatives also attended, indicating the reach of the attention on Virginia as it pivots to reap maximum benefit for the commonwealth from the canal project.

An increase of massive “post-Panamax” ships sailing for the East Coast, snatching lucrative trade from West Coast ports, is expected from 2015.

By 2030, according to Col. Paul Olsen, Norfolk District commander with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 62 percent of container ships will be post-Panamax. “Right there, that’s a call to action,” he declared.

Boozman said, “It’s not an academic exercise; this is really about creating jobs in the area, but also about protecting the jobs that we have. Our manufacturers desperately depend on ship transportation to get goods and services out into the country.”

Virginia’s port, with 50-foot deep channels and authorization for 55 feet, along with plans to significantly expand container throughput capability, is better positioned to handle the big ships than others on the East Coast, the roundtable heard; but concerns exist over transportation infrastructure.

“The road system … is a significant challenge up and down the East Coast; it’s something that we’re working on,” Virginia Port Authority Interim President Rodney Oliver said, citing the port’s up to $250-million contribution to the new U.S. Route 460, a road designed in part to spread port expansion opportunities into Southside Virginia.

Some port expansion-driven road projects, including the new Route 460 and Midtown and Downtown tunnel expansions, are bringing with them tolls, and the discussion heard that in supply chains, the added cost will be borne by inland transporters, who will have to pass it on to consumers.

Boozman said of road projects, “instead of dribbling money out all over the place, we need to start looking” at identifying and fixing “chokepoints.”

“So much of our discussion now is based on the economy of today,” he said. “I believe in the next few years we are going to get things rolling again … so we really have to be looking at that. If you start a road project now, it’s probably 10 to 12 years before you have gone through all the hurdles.”

CSX and Norfolk Southern, both of whom are investing heavily in their rail networks, called for the port to look beyond containerized freight to opportunities in coal and grain.

According to Quintin Kendall, regional vice president for state affairs at CSX, the coal export market presents a “tremendous opportunity” for returning jobs to the Appalachian region.

Steve Evans, Norfolk Southern’s assistant vice president for ports and international business, said few East Coast ports can handle grain, adding, “Because of drought, you are going to see grain coming into the U.S. for the first time.”

Suffolk Mayor Linda T. Johnson said 4.2 million square feet of port-related warehouse and distribution space and the 14 million more on the way, together with road and rail upgrades, are “just the tip” of what’s coming to the city.

“Suffolk is so intimately understanding of the economic power of the port … because we are already seeing our city change because of what’s going on here today,” she said.