Column: Importance of Virginia’s Port

Column: Importance of Virginia’s Port


Last week, I joined the Virginia Senate's Finance Committee in Portsmouth for briefings on Virginia’s economy, revenue projections and other important issues facing the state legislature. More on that later. While in Portsmouth, I toured two significant and under-appreciated Virginia assets.

While neither the shipyard nor the Port is located in Northern Virginia, both have a significant impact on our quality of life and the entire state’s economy. A healthy Port of Virginia has beneficial ripple effects across the whole state.

Newport News Shipbuilding, dating to 1886, is the only facility in the U.S. capable of constructing an aircraft carrier and one of two in the country that can build a submarine.

We started in the foundry where they manufacture large steel ship components. The level of precision, craftsmanship and quality that goes into making these pieces cannot be understated — it was amazing and there are no do-overs in this process. They walked us through all the steps: they model a wooden replica of the piece packed it in a casing with a plumbing system to facilitate even cooling, pack in sand, fill it with molten steel and cool it. Then, they break the molds apart.

Next, in the facility where submarines are assembled, we saw three different Virginia Class submarines in various stages of construction. Workers assemble four segments in this facility. General Dynamics Electric Boat in Norwalk, Conn., assembles other segments. After they complete the segments, they ship them by barge and put them together. Leaders showed us how they have reduced manufacturing time by over a year through efficiencies.

Lastly, we had a drive-by tour of the U.S.S. Gerald R. Ford, the Navy’s next nuclear aircraft carrier — and the U.S.S. Enterprise, which they are decommissioning before tugging it to the West Coast and scrapping it.

Newport News Shipbuilding has its own college which trains workers who earn college degrees. The company has many traditions, including its own challenge coin. It employs 20,000 very proud workers, mostly Virginians, 50 percent of whom are members of United Steelworkers Local 888. Everyone there does incredible work.

I also toured two segments of the Port of Virginia, first Norfolk International Terminals (NIT). NIT was alive with activity. We watched people thousands of containers being loaded, unloaded and waiting for pickup or shipment back across the sea.

Port Authority officials described their need for about $380 million in capital investment to keep pace with competing ports in New York, Baltimore and Charleston. Bigger ships are coming after improvements to the Panama and Suez Canals and efficiency is critical.

Next we toured the Virginia International Gateway (VIG). A soybean farm in 2007, today VIG is one of only two semi-automated cargo centers in the western hemisphere.

We watched a series of rail-guided cranes automatically take containers on and off ships and put them onto trucks. When trucks come through the entrance, cranes start to move containers into place for delivery. The only part of the process that is not automated is positioning containers onto the trailer chassis.

The Port currently receives over 5,000 tons of cargo worth over $15 million to and from businesses headquartered in the 36th Senate District. That excludes goods sold at retail stores such as Costco, Walmart, car dealerships and grocery stores.

The Port needs a major capital infusion to automate remaining port facilities, deepen channels, and complete an expansion on Craney Island in order to increase capacity by nearly 700,000 containers per year, about a 50 percent increase.

Next week, I will write about the health of the Virginia economy, the state budget outlook and some major budget drivers facing the 2016 General Assembly convening in January.

It is an honor to serve you in Richmond. Please email me at to share your views and questions.