A straddle carrier moves outside rail containers at the Virginia Inland Port in Warren County in 2010. The port was cited as one of the Shenandoah Valley’s strengths by commercial real estate firm Colliers International in naming the region to its “10 Emerging U.S. Industrial Markets to Watch in 2019.”

In October, the Port of Virginia finalized the contract for a $350 million dredging project, which, when completed, will make Norfolk Harbor the deepest on the East Coast of the United States, according to the Port of Virginia.

The dredging will help increase the amount of cargo ships that can enter the port, while work can also make the harbor more efficient by allowing two ships to move side by side, said Joe Harris, a spokesman for the Port of Virginia, the state body that operates the port’s terminals.

“Simply put, there’s going to be more cargo moving across Virginia,” Harris said. “That’s going to mean good things for job creation and economic development across the state.”

After work is slated to end in 2024, the only deeper harbor on the East Coast of North America would be in Nova Scotia, Canada, where the depth is naturally 70 feet, he said.

Dale Bennett, president and CEO of the Virginia Trucking Association, said he was “confident” that the dredging would bring more business and jobs to the state.

“Obviously, any kind of increase of freight coming into the state is going to benefit trucking because we haul a vast majority of it once it gets off the ships,” Bennett said.

Norfolk Southern, a rail carrier that operates in Harrisonburg and Rockingham, did not return emails or calls.

“We believe it’s going to have a significant economic impact on all of the terminals that operate,” Harris said.

The Port of Virginia is an economic powerhouse for the commonwealth, supporting over half a million jobs and with an $88 billion economic impact across its six terminals, according to a recent study by the College of William and Mary.

However, the exact impact of the dredging depends on what new business comes through the system after work is completed, Bennett said.

This year, the port is on track to break its fifth consecutive year of cargo volumes, according to Port of Virginia data from September.

“The truckers down in that area have been very, very busy,” Bennett said of cargo drivers in and around Norfolk.

And even though the dredging will continue the Port of Virginia’s momentum for increased cargo, Bennett said he expects the resulting increase in traffic will be distributed equally around the state.

“I don't see any reason to think they'll be any significant shift of truck traffic from one road to any other,” Bennett said. “I think [the increased hauling] will still be distributed among our roads like it is now.”

In the Virginia section of the Interstate 81 corridor, $2.2 billion in improvements has been identified for the 855-mile roadway that runs from eastern Tennessee to northern New York.

Local economic development experts regularly extol the benefits of the interstate’s proximity to Harrisonburg and Rockingham.

One of the port’s six terminals is the Virginia Inland Port located in Front Royal, which can hold 78,000 20-by-8-foot shipping containers, referred to as TEUs. The truck and rail logistics yard is 161 acres and is being expanded to provide space for 100,000 TEUs.

From there, cargo can be shipped by rail to markets in the West and driven north or south via trucks, Harris said.

However, Interstate 81 was built in 1959, and in recent years, many residents have grown concerned about the conditions on the roadway.

The Virginia Department of Transportation conducted studies and identified $4 billion worth of improvements for the interstate, said Sandy Myers, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Transportation.

“The recommendations that were developed were to address the top 20 issues for congestion and safety that exists today,” Myers said.

The effect of the Port of Virginia terminal expansions was considered, she said, and in the end, $2.2 billion of funding was identified by state government to go forward.

And just as the Department of Transportation is preparing for the future of I-81, the Port of Virginia is preparing for the future of its terminals.

Another port project is the renovation of the Norfolk International Terminals, which is slated for completion in 2020. The $350 million of improvements will expand the terminal's capacity by 400,000 containers, or 46%, without having to expand the site’s footprint, according to the Port of Virginia website.

“We know that were on a course for growth,” Harris said. “Knowing that, and knowing the investments in dredging, at our terminals, rail and inland port, we must make sure our infrastructure is ready to handle that growth.”

Contact Ian Munro at 574-6278 or imunro@dnronline.com. Follow Ian on Twitter @IanMunroDNR

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