NORFOLK, Va. (AP) — After years of financial woes, the Port of Virginia is finally back in the black and wants the state to help it grow.
When the General Assembly returns to Richmond this winter, port officials will lobby lawmakers for $350 million in upgrades to enable one of its terminals to handle more cargo. That’s vital to ensure Virginia maintains its competitive edge when massive cargo ships begin passing through the expanded Panama Canal after it’s completed next year, officials say.
“You can’t say you want to be the No. 1 port on the East Coast or the nation and not invest in it,” said Virginia Department of Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne.
The $350 million is thought to be the biggest one-time request ever made by the port and will be part of a larger infrastructure funding plan from Gov. Terry McAuliffe.
The money would go toward upgrades like new cranes at the Norfolk International Terminals, allowing it to handle about 400,000 additional containers every year, said Joe Harris, a spokesman for the port.
The port needs to be able to manage an additional 4.5 million 20-foot-long containers by 2040 or it will lose business to other East Coast ports that are spending heavily to prepare for the huge post-Panama Canal expansion ships, said John Milliken, chairman of the port’s board of directors.
In addition to the Norfolk project, the port has reached a deal to extend the state’s lease for the privately owned Virginia International Gateway terminal in Portsmouth and will break ground next year on a project expected to double its capacity.
The port’s growth comes as it celebrates its first yearly profit since 2007. Officials hope their ability to put the port back on sound financial footing will help them convince lawmakers to invest in it.
“If I’m sitting across the table from a group of legislators and they’re quizzing me about how prudent it is to spend money on the port, I have got to be able to say we will handle it efficiently, effectively and profitably,” Milliken said. The funding for the Norfolk International Terminals project would likely come in the form of bonds issued by the state, Layne said.
The port turned a $13.6 million operating profit for the fiscal year that ended June 30 — an improvement of more than $30 million over the previous year, Harris said. Officials have attributed the turnaround to improvements in the economy as well as changes made by new Executive Director John Reinhart that have eliminated unnecessary positions and services, reduced congestion and cut down on the time it takes trucks to get in and out of the port.
Del. Chris Jones, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said he has met with port officials and the administration about the request and is receptive to the idea. But he said he still needs to understand what the return on investment will be for the state. Lawmakers must weigh the request against bond proposals for other things like higher education and research and development facilities, he said.
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