Expanding Norfolk Harbor’s Shipping Channels

Image source: USACE

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Virginia Port Authority are proceeding with design measures to expand Norfolk Harbor’s shipping channels, which will improve navigation and energize the national, state and local economy.

The “Wider, Deeper, Safer” dredging project will deepen the Inner Harbor channels to 55 feet, Chesapeake Bay’s Thimble Shoal Channel to 56 feet and Atlantic Ocean Channel to 59 feet. The Thimble Shoal Channel will also be widened up to 1,400 feet in select areas, allowing for ultra-large container vessel two-way traffic.

The navigation project recently secured full federal approval when President Donald Trump signed America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2018.

“In short, the project’s inclusion in the bill clears the path for the Port of Virginia to become the deepest and safest port on the East Coast,” said Joe Harris, a Virginia Port Authority spokesman. “The next step in the process is to complete the preliminary engineering and design work and then begin dredging next January.”

Focus on design

With about a year left before construction starts on the western portion of Thimble Shoal Channel, Corps and port officials say engineers are focused on locking down an engineering and design plan for seamless transition into all the dredging phases.

Norfolk District Senior Project Manager, Robert Pretlow, said that the detailed engineering and design phase includes ship simulation, sediment sampling and testing for Environmental Protection Agency clearances, hydrographic assessments, dredged-material management, environmental coordination and archaeological-resource surveys for sunken vessels in potential dredging areas.

Virginia Port Authority engineers completed archeological-resource surveys and sediment sampling for the initial construction phase in December. The first stage of ship simulation with the Virginia Pilot Association took place earlier this month at the Maritime Institute of Technology and Graduate Studies facility in Maryland.

Norfolk District officials say that they’re working to execute a design agreement with the Virginia Port Authority in March that will allow federal funds to be used to complete engineering and design work for the remaining project construction.

An eye on safer movement

The shipping industry’s standard unit of measure for shipping containers is known as a TEU, or 20-foot equivalent unit.

A decade ago, the workhorse-vessel size was 8,000 TEUs and these ships made daily calls to the Port of Virginia, Harris said. Now, they carry more than 14,000 TEUs into the port’s six terminals, and officials are preparing for the next generation of ships, which could top 16,000.

The trend is to build bigger and bigger ships to take advantage of navigation-cost savings,” Pretlow said. “That requires the dredging of deeper channels to provide additional water under the draft of a ship for safety and added maneuverability.”

Harris said the “Wider, Deeper, Safer” project will enable the Atlantic Ocean’s biggest ships to safely transit the Port of Virginia fully laden with cargo and without tidal restrictions.

Navy vessels and coal ships are expected to benefit from safer, more efficient movement as well.

Commercial benefit 

In 2007, Norfolk Harbor’s inbound lanes were deepened to 50 feet to match outbound lanes, Pretlow said. Now, the Port of Virginia wants to dredge channels deeper to remain competitive with other ports on the East Coast.

From a federal perspective, deeper channels mean larger ships,” he added, “and larger ships mean lower transportation costs, the savings of which are passed on to the general population as lower commodity costs.” 

The modern, growing and progressive port will attract companies seeking economical and efficient access to world markets, Harris said.

“The economic impact is going to be significant and extend across Virginia,” he added. “The ‘Wider, Deeper, Safer’ project, combined with ongoing terminal-capacity expansion projects at Virginia International Gateway and Norfolk International terminals – with completion in 2020 – will create jobs, investment and economic development across the state.”

Expansion and growth

The Port of Virginia received four new ship-to-shore cranes in early January as part of its ongoing efforts to accommodate increasingly massive container ships, local news outlets reported. The cranes stand 170 feet tall and will be the nation’s largest when operational around mid-March.

The port is home to the world’s biggest naval base, a robust shipbuilding and repair industry, thriving export coal trade and sixth-largest containerized cargo complex in the U.S., according to its website.

Estimated cost of the engineering and design work is $20 million, while project construction was forecast at $330 million. Last June, Gov. Ralph Northam and the Virginia General Assembly approved state funding for the entire project.

“The Corps of Engineers has been a critical partner in the success of this process, and that teamwork is going to be vital as we move into the construction phase,” Harris said.

Completion of the full Norfolk Harbor navigation-improvement project is expected around 2025.


Story by Vince Little, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Norfolk District

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