Posted April 10, 2019
IT MAY NOT matter that President Donald Trump’s proposed budget left Hampton Roads out of the list of East Coast ports chosen to receive millions of dollars to deepen their harbors. That’s because it realistically has zero chance of being passed by Congress.
But still, it’s disappointing and puzzling that he proposed giving money to Charleston; Boston; Savannah, Ga.; and, on the Gulf coast, Corpus Christi, Texas — all competitors with the Port of Virginia for shipping business — for construction projects to make their ports deeper, but nothing for the Norfolk area.
Virginia’s delegation in Congress — which, after all, has the power of the purse strings — should do what the president failed to do and make money for improving the shipping lanes and harbors here a top priority.
Ports are hurrying to make shipping lanes and facilities bigger and deeper to accommodate the increasingly mammoth container vessels used by the shipping industry. Since 2016, when the Panama Canal was expanded to accommodate larger ships, bigger and bigger ships have been making their way to Norfolk. Some are so big that they can cause traffic in shipping lanes to be one way only, causing backups
The port wants these big ships to keep coming.
To remain competitive with other East Coast ports, the Port of Virginia must move ahead with its construction plans. Savannah and Charleston have projects in the works for channels as deep as 47 and 52 feet, with completion expected by 2021 or 2022.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approved plans in Norfolk to dredge the inner harbor to 55 feet and deepen the Thimble Shoal Channel in the Chesapeake Bay to 55 feet, while making the channel wider. There are also plans to dredge the Atlantic Ocean channel that leads to the port to a depth of 59 feet. Construction also is planned around the Elizabeth River harbor.
All this will take millions of dollars, and it involves navigating considerable federal red tape.
The state budget provided $350 million that will allow the port to start some of the dredging by the first of next year.
To speed up the process, the port has signed an agreement with the Army Corps that will enable the port to act as its own project manager on the Thimble Shoal dredging. That approach is something of a gamble, as the port might not get its share of federal money if it does not follow all the rules and conditions set out in the agreement. Other parts of the planned construction will be done with the Corps as the primary manager.
The port’s strategy should allow things to move along faster, to keep up in the race with other East Coast ports.
The usual process for projects approved by the Army Corps of Engineers involves getting a “new start” designation. Norfolk is moving ahead without that designation, banking on getting it later through the appropriations bill Congress passes or in Trump’s budget for 2021.
Port officials are moving ahead with major dredging projects, knowing that the projects are essential if the port is to continue providing top-notch service. There’s an understandable sense of urgency in the competition with other ports, where similar projects are making significant progress.
There should be money available. In recent years, the federal budget has been increasing the amount of money it provides for improving harbor channels.
But Virginia’s representatives in Congress obviously should not count on Trump to provide what the port needs in next year’s budget.
Norfolk is a thriving, major port, vital to the economy of this region but also to that of the country as a whole. The success of the Port of Virginia is important to the continued health of the nation’s trade and to the American economy.
The shipping industry is changing, with an increasing emphasis on bigger and bigger ships. The Port of Virginia has plans in place to change with it. Now it needs its fair share of federal dollars to make those plans become reality.