Port improvements important to Suffolk

Published 8:37 pm Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Ever wonder what makes Virginia’s ports so important to Suffolk? Take a trip down U.S. Route 58 and pay special attention to the CenterPoint intermodal development near Kenyon Road.

CenterPoint is the latest face of warehousing and distribution in Suffolk, but that industry had a big presence in the city long before Ace Hardware, Nexcom and Friant built facilities there. Across the highway, Target Distribution Center, which recently announced a major expansion to its services, has been a longtime Suffolk resident. And in other industrial parks and locations around the city, companies such as QVC, Sysco, Lipton, Massimo Zanetti and many others like them have long been a part of Suffolk’s landscape.

Most of these companies rely, to one degree or another, on the city’s proximity to the Norfolk International Terminals, the Portsmouth Marine Terminal and the Virginia International Gateway as partners in their distribution businesses. Many of Suffolk’s manufacturing companies rely on the ports to export their finished products to places around the world.

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A healthy Virginia ports system is vital to Suffolk’s economic well being. So there’s little wonder that city officials, along with legislators representing Suffolk, monitor the ports’ status and lobby on their behalf.

Those officials — and, by extension, the city itself — got good news recently, when the Virginia General Assembly approved a $350 million state-backed bond to expand Norfolk International Terminals, the state’s largest container terminal. The facility now holds a maximum of 820,000 containers; once the project is complete in 2019, its capacity will increase to 1.2 million containers.

They got a further dose of positive reinforcement during a State of the Ports presentation by John Reinhart, executive director of the Virginia Port Authority. Reinhart told a group of about 300 on Tuesday that the commonwealth is well positioned to take advantage of the growth of the shipping industry.

In 2105, he said, the Port of Virginia took in 117,000 containers — more than 200,000 TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent units, which is a standard-size shipping container) — per month. Container volume grew by 9 percent in Virginia last year, he said. Nine-percent growth in any industry is remarkable, but the growth rate in Virginia was actually lower than it was for some of the commonwealth’s biggest shipping competitors.

Traffic could be one of the primary limiting factors for shipping in Virginia, especially in Hampton Roads, where clogged tunnels, bridges and highways are a factor any distribution company must consider before locating here. State officials have made some strides toward beginning to solve those problems, but there is far to go. Plans by the city to apply for $35 million in federal funding for widening Route 58 will also help, assuming the federal government approves the grant.

The success of Virginia’s ports is vital to Suffolk and the rest of Hampton Roads, but it’s also inseparable from the economic vitality of the commonwealth as a whole, bringing in tax dollars that are used for programs from Lee County to Loudon County and all points in between. Therefore, stewardship of this great economic engine should be similarly shared.

The General Assembly’s recent approval of bonds to increase port capacity is a timely affirmation of that body’s recognition of the ports’ importance to the commonwealth. The port improvements that follow will be especially important to Suffolk in the coming years.