A nightmare in the making

Published 9:43 pm Thursday, July 28, 2016

Suffolk continues to reap the benefits of a healthy system of Hampton Roads port facilities. An announcement on Thursday that Panattoni Development Co., a privately held real estate development company, will build a 300,000-square-foot industrial building in the Virginia Regional Commerce Park off Pruden Boulevard, is only the latest evidence of those benefits.

The facility will be the first speculative industrial investment in Hampton Roads since 2007, and the fact that Panattoni chose Suffolk for it suggests this developer, like others that have located warehousing and distribution facilities throughout the city in recent years, recognized what a prime location this city offers for such a venture.

Suffolk is located along two major east-west transportation corridors, it has plenty of room for growth, it has ample access to railroads, it offers a large, skilled workforce and it is close to all the hubbub of Hampton Roads, while retaining a rural charm.

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In fact, the growth of Hampton Roads’ ports is both a blessing and a curse to Suffolk. Though the city benefits from tax revenues and jobs created by each new warehousing and distribution center that opens here, each new announcement ensures a higher level of truck traffic on the already-stressed Route 460 and Route 58 corridors. There will come a time — and that in the not-too-distant future — when those roads become a hindrance to both the ports and the city’s economic development prospects.

City Manager Patrick Roberts, speaking to the Rotary Club of Suffolk on Thursday, was direct in his assessment of the situation when answering a question about Suffolk’s truck traffic. He said port officials had historically been tepid in their interest in the needs of communities “outside the gates” of Hampton Roads’ shipping facilities.

What’s needed, he said, is support from other parts of the commonwealth for improving and expanding the infrastructure used to transport cargo to and from the ports.

Just so.

A Panama Canal capable of handling bigger ships than ever before will matter little to Hampton Roads if the region’s excellent shipping facilities cannot guarantee shippers that their goods will not be delayed by gridlock headed west out of the area. And uncertainty about that issue could eventually jeopardize the important economic contributions the ports make to the region and to the commonwealth.

Roberts said there are positive signs that others across the Old Dominion are beginning to recognize the dangers of continuing to let this matter fester, and he pointed to the fully funded Route 58 widening project, which he said is three years from breaking ground, as one part of the solution.

But a comprehensive solution to the problem is still just a dream. We hope port officials and lawmakers wake up to the threat before the dream becomes a nightmare.