Port of Virginia avoids major container backlogs

Dozens of ships are waiting for berths off Los Angeles. 

Puget Sound is so overloaded, rarely used anchorages have filled up. 

And now, the cargo backlogs are spreading to the East Coast ports of Savannah and New York-New Jersey. 

The Port of Virginia, meanwhile, continues to operate normally despite similar surges in cargo that have bedeviled other ports. 

Joe Harris, spokesman for the Norfolk-area port, attributes the relative ease of shipments to the so-called Virginia Model, in which the port owns and operates its terminals. When a problem arises, port leaders can step in to address it quickly. 

The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, by contrast, lease their terminals to private companies. 

Competition between terminal operators and other logistics hurdles can stymie the kind of cooperation that might otherwise ease the shipping backlogs. “The way that is set up it can prevent collaboration,” Harris said. “That is nobody’s fault, but it is just how it is set up.”

Norfolk’s two primary terminals, like other busy ports, have faced their share of challenges over the past year, and worker shortages are a problem nationwide. But the port has tools to respond quickly.

For instance, when trailer chassis availability tightened, the port opened Saturday hours to facilitate their return. 

“Outside of paying some people to work on Saturday, there wasn’t a big challenge to it,” Harris said. 

Norfolk also benefits from an $800 million port optimization project completed about 18 months ago. Those upgrades came at an optimal time, as port officials don’t expect cargo volumes to fall anytime soon.