By Congressman Randy Forbes
Yesterday, I hosted a Panama Canal Roundtable in Suffolk with Senator John Boozman (AR) to bring experts in international shipping, trade, and transport together to discuss how Virginia and the rest of the country can work together to prepare for the impending expansion of the Panama Canal, a ‘game changer’ for the ports on the East Coast. In attendance were Jim Cheng, Virginia Commerce Secretary, several of our mayors, Virginia Port Authority Commissioners, Colonel Paul Olsen, Army Corps of Engineers, Representatives from the American Trucking Association, Retail Industry Leaders Association, and industry representatives from CSX, Maersk, Norfolk Southern, Target, Walmart and more.
Out of an interesting discussion, three highlights emerged.
1. The post-Panamax ships are coming and we need to be prepared for that. The future of international shipping is moving towards these larger post-Panamax ships that can handle up to ten times the carrying capacity of previously used vessels. The Panama Canal expansion is due to be completed by the end of 2015 and currently, the Port of Virginia is the only East Coast port prepared to accept these giant ships, which require deeper channels, wider berths, larger turning basins and expanded dock capacity. Colonel Olsen, the Norfolk District Commander for the Army Corps of Engineers predicted that 62 percent of container ships will be post-Panamax class by 2030. This capability, partnered with the Port of Virginia’s rail and truck access that allows goods off-loaded at the port to be transported to two-thirds of the U.S. population within 24 hours, puts the Commonwealth in an especially advantageous position to benefit from the Panama Canal expansion.
2. Our interconnectivity underscores the importance of strong partnerships. Ships will only come to the Port of Virginia if the channel is deep enough and the port can receive and process their cargo timely and efficiently. Transportation companies, such as rail and trucking companies - can only deliver goods if adequate highway, tunnel and rail infrastructure exists to handle the larger payloads. Retailers and small businesses can only succeed if they can acquire their goods economically and in a timely manner. All these businesses depend in some way on each other to sell goods to consumers and the efficiency in which they do has a huge effect on how much you, the end consumer will pay for them. We must ensure that government regulation is minimal and helps, not hurts these businesses, who ultimately pass on these costs to consumers.
3. We need to be more strategic and forward thinking. We need to look further than six months in the future to fully take advantage of the economic opportunities presented by things like the Panama Canal expansion. It’s not just enough for the ports to be ready to accept the larger ships, but the highway and rail access needs to be prepared ahead-of time. We need to protect the jobs we have and take advantage of opportunities for new ones. The Port of Virginia’s rail and truck access that allows goods off-loaded at the port to be transported to two-thirds of the U.S. population within 24 hours, puts the Commonwealth in an especially advantageous position to benefit from the Panama Canal expansion but how we adapt to the changes that are in motion will determine how we capitalize on these opportunities.
P.S. Watch WAVY-TV’s coverage of yesterday’s roundtable here.
Read my opinion piece in the Richmond Times Dispatch on this topic: On Port of Virginia question: Bag the Bolo Punch
Read the Harnessing Panama’s Potential in the Suffolk News-Herald.