Port of Virginia confronts congestion crisis that seemingly has no let-up

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"Sense of urgency" at port as backlogs mount at international gateway terminal.

The Port of Virginia is in its sixth day of dealing with a mounting and near-unprecedented congestion crisis at one of its terminals, The blockage was triggered by the dual effects of heavy containerized volumes and bad weather that hit the mid-Atlantic region last month.

The problem centers on the Virginia International Gateway (VIG), where cargo is arriving and departing with no letup, and will likely continue to do so through Friday. In an effort to relieve overcrowding in the terminal, the port last weekend began using barges in a drayage capacity to reposition containers between VIG, the Portsmouth Marine Terminal and Norfolk International Terminals (NIT). Road drayage vehicles are being kept away from VIG's gates as much as possible, said Joe Harris, a port spokesman.

The port said in an update yesterday that it has asked logistics and dray companies, as well as beneficial cargo owners (BCOs) that have containers at NIT, to direct truckers there if possible. The port is moving containers scheduled to ship via rail to a large open area near the docks to keep those boxes separate from equipment set to move by truck, according to Harris. It is also grounding selected containers outside the container stacks that are maintained by rail-mounted gantry cranes, a move aimed at reducing the stacks' density and allowing truckers and dockworkers to do their jobs more efficiently.

The port added that it was "optimizing" vessel arrivals at VIG to control inventory and better balance demand with available resources. It will keep Saturday gate hours at VIG, Norfolk and the Pinners Point Container Yard through June 27. It will keep Sunday gate hours at VIG and Pinners Point through at least April 26. The need to extend Sunday hours will be evaluated at that time, officials said.

Even before two punishing storms hit the state toward the end of February, more than 18 months of record volumes had pushed VIG beyond its maximum capacity of 650,000 containers, Harris said; today, VIG is handling 700,000 containers. The storms dramatically curtailed productivity, especially after the President's Day weekend, and put port operations in an even deeper hole because volumes have not abated.

For example, Harris said that workers one night last week were on the job at VIG until 9:00 p.m. to clear out the backlogs, only to find the next day that there were 900 more containers than the day before, courtesy of an arriving vessel that had unloaded its cargo.

Harris said the port couldn't speed up operations at VIG without jeopardizing safety, noting the terminal is "built to operate at a certain speed." Port officials have been transparent with stakeholders by warning of delays in loading, unloading and moving freight in and out of the terminal. The port's traffic mix is fairly balanced, with slightly more imports than exports.

"There's a ton of hard work going on, and people are operating with a sense of urgency," Harris said in a phone interview describing the current situation.

Harris added that the congestion has nothing to do with additional volumes that might have been diverted to Virginia by companies concerned about a possible shutdown of West Coast ports over a contract dispute between the International Longshore & Warehouse Union (ILWU) and the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), which represents waterfront management. The nine-month impasse has apparently ended after both sides tentatively agreed to a new five-year contract. Since late October, when tensions between the two sides dramatically escalated, shippers and BCOs have redirected containers bound for the West Coast to East and Gulf coast ports through either the Suez or Panama canals.

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