How the Port of Virginia works: an explainer

Published 9:47 am Saturday, April 11, 2015

by Randy Forbes

Sixty-seven million tons. That is the total amount of cargo that the Port of Virginia moved in 2014 at a value of roughly $71.4 billion. The incredible thing about those impressive numbers is that they provide only a small glimpse into the value that our ports provide to the Fourth District, the Commonwealth, and the entire country. Every day, our ports move cargo in and out of Virginia, bringing goods and supplies to shop owners, farmers, manufacturing companies, warehouses, retail stores, and more. They allow businesses to meet their growth goals, better serve customers, and move agricultural products. But how exactly does the Port of Virginia work? And what are all of its benefits to the Commonwealth?

Here is what you need to know about the Port of Virginia:


What is the Port of Virginia?

The Port of Virginia is a collection of terminals and logistics operations that receive and transport cargo goods to and from markets around the world. Although the Port mainly transfers consumer goods, its deep-water harbor supports the world’s largest naval base, and a robust shipbuilding and ship repair industry.

The Port is considered Virginia’s gateway to international commerce. Thirty international shipping lines provide direct service to and from Virginia, connecting those shippers’ goods to an interconnected system of highways, railroads, waterways and airways.


Where are Virginia’s ports exactly?

There are seven total terminals that make up the Port of Virginia: Newport News Marine Terminal, Norfolk International Terminal, Virginia International Gateway Terminal, Portsmouth Marine Terminal, Port of Richmond, Virginia Inland Port, and Craney Island.

These terminals are located at strategic points throughout the Commonwealth, with several in and around Virginia’s Fourth Congressional District.

The Port of Virginia is one of the busiest ports on the east coast, processing over 2.4 million TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent units, which are a standard-size shipping container) in 2014, roughly 13 percent of the east coast market share (second only to New York City’s 32 percent and Savannah, Georgia’s 18 percent).


What do Virginia’s ports do for our economy?

The Port is a major employer and economic driver for the Commonwealth. In Fiscal Year 2013, the Port of Virginia brought in over $60 billion in revenue to the Commonwealth. Additionally, nearly 10 percent of the Commonwealth’s total resident workforce is linked to Virginia’s port terminals, and the Port has played a key role in helping to attract over 700 internationally-owned companies (and over $4 billion in international investments) to Virginia.

“The Port of Virginia is having positive effects on spending, employee compensation, employment and taxes,” said John F. Reinhart, CEO and Executive Director of the Virginia Port Authority, in a news release. “As the port grows, so do its benefits to the businesses and taxpayers of Virginia.”


What makes Virginia’s ports

so appealing to shippers?

Virginia’s ports are well known to shippers around the world because Virginia’s centrally located, ice-free harbors are only 18 miles (a short 2.5 hour sail) from open sea. The Port also has 50-foot-deep channels, some of the deepest on the East Coast, and is the only East Coast Port with authorization to dredge its channels to 55-feet. This puts Hampton Roads and the Commonwealth at an advantage over other ports because Virginia is able to receive some of the largest cargo ships in the world — when other states or ports cannot. The Port is also one of the most technologically advanced in the world, housing one of only two fully-automated terminal facilities in the United States and can process over one-million TEUs a year.


Where do goods go once they arrive at the Port?

Virginia’s ports are supported by a highly effective inland transportation system, from ground transportation to rail. In 2014, 63 percent of cargo in the Port was moved by truck, 33 percent was moved by rail, and 4 percent was moved by barge. The Port of Virginia boasts a total of 30 miles of on-dock rail, which streamlines the process of moving cargo from ships to rail.

Because of the Port of Virginia’s rail infrastructure, it is able to connect to businesses across the United States. Norfolk Southern and CSX — two of the nation’s biggest railroads — run goods from Virginia’s ports across large swaths of the United States.


What are the major issues facing Virginia’s ports?

Overall, the Port of Virginia is a strong link in Virginia’s economic chain. Recently, the Port has seen increased cargo traffic as a result of an improving economy and a West Coast port slowdown that drove traffic to the East Coast.

Today, the Port is focused on retaining the increased cargo traffic and making appropriate preparations for increased international shipping, trade, and transport. Two key elements of this equation are the continuation of dredging efforts to reach a channel depth of 55 feet, maintaining the Port’s competitive advantage over other East Coast Ports racing to deepen their own channels, and expanding terminal operations to Craney Island to help meet rising container volumes and consumer demand. In order for Virginia to stay competitive as an economic hub, the Port must continue to innovate and enhance its operations.


Looking ahead….

Virginia’s ports boast a future bright with potential for continued growth, productivity, and even greater value to Hampton Roads and shippers across the globe. With the Panama Canal expansion on the horizon, a significant boost in the amount of cargo moved through the canal and between hemispheres is expected. That’s why I serve on the Congressional Panama Canal Expansion Caucus, to assist in positioning the Port of Virginia to take advantage of this enormous opportunity for economic growth. The preparation of the Port of Virginia to handle this expansion and the post-panamax ships signals our commitment to a new era in global commerce — making the Port of Virginia an even more attractive option for shippers around the world. Virginia’s ports represent an important piece of our future and, with our commitment and support, we can help to ensure it will be a bright one.

CONGRESSMAN RANDY FORBES represents Virginia’s Fourth District, which includes Suffolk, in the U.S. House of Representatives. Visit his website at