Hampton Roads is one step closer to a deeper, wider port. Here’s what that means for you

The Port of Virginia will benfit from the increased depths of Norfolk Harbor and its channels (Southside Daily Photo/Courtesy of the Army Corps. of Engineers)
The Port of Virginia will benefit from the increased depths of Norfolk Harbor and its shipping channels. (Southside Daily Photo/Courtesy of the Army Corps of Engineers)

The effort to make the Port of Virginia the deepest port on the U.S East Coast continues to advance as the Army Corps of Engineers issued its final authorization on July 3 to move ahead with the “Wider, Deeper, Safer” project, according to a news release from the Corps of Engineers.

The endorsement is a key step in getting federal funding for the project, and clears the way for the project’s inclusion in the next Water Resources Development Act to be passed by Congress.

Gov. Ralph Northam and both legislative chambers agreed in June to invest $350 million to deepen the harbor and its channels. But that only makes up half the funding — the federal government will need to provide the rest.

“The $700 million harbor expansion project will create the capacity and velocity necessary for handling the next generation of big ships and the increased cargo volumes they will bring,” said John F. Reinhart, CEO and executive director of the Virginia Port Authority

The Norfolk Harbor and its channels are currently 50 feet deep, according to the Corps of Engineers. However, the dredging project will take the channels to 55 feet deep and widen the channels to allow for two-way traffic of ultra-large container vessels, said Col. Patrick Kinsman, commander of the Norfolk District, Army Corps of Engineers.

The Atlantic Ocean Channel, Thimble Shoals Channel, and Norfolk Harbor are all slated to be dredge to a depth of 55 feet, allowing for large ships to carry more cargo into port (Southside Daily Photo/Courtesy of the Army Corps. of Engineers)
The Atlantic Ocean Channel, Thimble Shoals Channel, and Norfolk Harbor are all slated to be dredge to a depth of 55 feet, allowing for large ships to carry more cargo into port. (Southside Daily Photo/Courtesy of the Army Corps of Engineers)

A channel that can accommodate two-way vessel traffic will increase the pace of commerce and make way for the efficient movement of Navy vessels in a time of need, Kinsman said.

A 50-foot-deep shipping channel is currently maintained from Thimble Shoals to Norfolk and Newport News by regularly dredging the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay, Elizabeth River, and James River, according to the Corps of Engineers. The inbound channel above the Thimble Shoals tunnel of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel is 350 feet wide and 50 feet deep, while the outbound channel is 650 feet wide and 50 feet deep, according to the Corps of Engineers.

Norfolk Harbor, sometimes known as the Port of Hampton Roads, is formed by the confluence of the James, Nansemond, and Elizabeth Rivers. One of the 45 harbor pilots, based at Lynnhaven Inlet in Virginia Beach, guides vessels through the the 11-mile long Atlantic Ocean Channel, then 12 miles through the Thimble Shoals Channel, and through the remaining 5 miles of the harbor to the port terminals.

The Corps of Engineers said the Norfolk Harbor dredging project has a target completion date of 2024.

“The support this project has gotten in Washington, D.C., in Richmond and locally shows true foresight and ensures The Port of Virginia will be able to remain an attractive and competitive global gateway for trade for decades,” Reinhart said. “In order to safely and efficiently operate, those ships are going to need deep, wide channels.”

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