By Gordon Rago
In a race for the largest and deepest East Coast port, Virginia is about to leap ahead.
The budget about to be signed by Gov. Ralph Northam includes $350 million to kick-start a major dredging project in the shipping channel. If the project goes forward, shipping channels in the port of Hampton Roads will go from 50 feet to 55 feet in some places, surpassing Los Angeles, the busiest port in the nation.
The dredging project, headed up by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, will also widen shipping channels in Hampton Roads up to 1,400 feet.
The push to dredge is fueled by ultra-large container vessels more frequently criss-crossing the world, and the ability of ports along the East Coast like Virginia, Charleston and Savannah to accommodate them. Charleston is in the middle of a deepening project, and Savannah is pushing for the same.
“The port has always been an economic engine for the commonwealth, not just Hampton Roads,” said Del. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, chairman of the Virginia House Appropriations Committee.
Currently, the Coast Guard temporarily closes shipping channels in Norfolk when an ultra-large vessel passes through, sometimes for hours, because the channels aren’t deep or wide enough to allow for two-way traffic.
The money in the budget includes $20 million for design, while the remainder would be in state bonds the Port of Virginia could use as the project progresses. Dredging would take place in a channel ships use to come into the port, as well as channels closer to shipping terminals in Norfolk and Newport News.
There are still hurdles to clear. The Corps of Engineers will pass its final report up the chain for review and, if all goes well, the project would be included in a report to Congress for review and authorization of funds.
State officials see the project as keeping Norfolk competitive, especially since a 2016 expansion of the Panama Canal.
A Northam spokeswoman said the expansion would increase the port’s capacity by 40 percent or, put another way, 1 million more containers.