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Port Takeover?

State proposes shake-up of city port, which could save millions.

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State officials are proposing the financially troubled Port of Richmond become part of the Virginia Port Authority, a move that could significantly reduce freight traffic on highways and save millions in road construction along Interstate 64.

Under management of the port authority, state Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton says the small, city-owned port could see an infusion of state funds and help generate much-needed jobs in the Richmond region. 

“We believe that the port could have a very bright future if it could partner with the Virginia Port Authority,” Connaughton tells Style Weekly in an exclusive interview.

Connaughton, a former head of the U.S. Maritime Administration and Prince William County supervisor, says that the administration of Gov. Bob McDonnell has started talks with the city officials about the status of the port, just off Interstate 95 south of downtown.
Port officials declined comment. “I'll have to get back to you on that,” says port operator David McNeel. City officials couldn't immediately be reached for comment.

Once bustling, the facility on the James River has been languishing due to the recession and management issues and is said to be close to bankruptcy. The port suffered a major blow about a year ago when International Container Lines, its biggest customer over the last 24 years, left for Wilmington, N.C.

The port's manager, Federal Marine Transport of Canada, did not renew its contract last summer because of the lack of business in Richmond. Another firm, Port Contractors of New Castle, Del., was to take over management last October.

Connaughton says that the deep-pocketed Virginia Port Authority, an autonomous, nonprofit state agency that operates sprawling port facilities in Norfolk, Portsmouth and Newport News, could help generate hundreds of thousands of dollars for infrastructure improvements in Richmond and could help increase the number of shipping companies that use the facility.

One objective would be to carry by barge more containers between Hampton Roads and Richmond to decrease truck traffic on congested Interstate 64. As head of the U.S. Maritime Administration during George W. Bush's presidency, Connaughton expanded the use of barges to haul traffic on U.S. inland waterways, such as the James River and Chesapeake Bay, to help unclog highways.

The port authority, he says, has operated an inland port in Front Royal near the Blue Ridge Mountains for years. There, trucks hauling containers enter the facility near Interstate 81 where the loads are processed for customs and other paperwork. They are hauled by rail to Hampton Roads. Doing so has created thousands of jobs in the Front Royal area at distribution centers operated by large retailers.

Connaughton says the same could be done in Richmond if the port authority took over management, but the loads would be carried by barge instead of rail. Doing so would help the cash-strapped transportation department save money because there would be less urgency to spend billions widening Interstate 64. He says that the Richmond port could be improved for “a few hundred thousand dollars.”

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