The Virginia Inland Port in Front Royal. Courtesy of Port of Virginia.

We’re all waiting on a state budget. The headline item – and the big holdup – is whether the state will eliminate all or just part of the tax on food. It’s hard to agree on a budget when you can’t even agree on how much money you have to spend.

Further down in at least one of the two rival budgets under consideration is funding for some potentially transformative projects in this part of the state – the two biggest, by dollar amounts, being $20 million to pay off the bonds for the former Central Virginia Training Center site in Amherst County so the state can sell it off for development and $15.7 million for life sciences labs in the Roanoke Valley. I’ve previously written about 12 potentially transformative things in those budgets, and I devoted a column recently to the growth of the life sciences cluster in the Roanoke Valley.

Today let’s zero in on one of those items that isn’t nearly so expensive, and hasn’t gotten nearly as much attention: $200,000 to study whether the state should build “inland ports” in either Bristol or Lynchburg.

First, we need to define what an inland port is for all us landlubbers. The term seems an oxymoron but it’s actually fairly ingenious. Virginia already has one inland port, near Front Royal, the brainchild of then-Gov. Gerald Baliles in the 1980s. Part of the idea behind that inland port was to divert rail traffic headed for the port at Baltimore and direct it to Hampton Roads. The idea was that goods could go through customs at this inland site, then get shipped by train to Hampton Roads and go straight onto ships. Or the other way around. Another part of the idea was that this inland port would help relieve congestion at Hampton Roads – faster turnaround times would help both shipping companies and trucking companies. Ultimately, ports are big funnels and not everything can go through the funnel at the same time. It’s hard to expand a port to allow for more ships; it’s a lot easier to move some of the onshore functions further inland so that ships can load or unload more quickly and then get on their way.

The Virginia Inland Port appears to have been quite successful. An economic impact study commissioned by the Port of Virginia estimated that the Front Royal facility has generated 6,000 jobs and an overall economic impact of $1.3 billion. Not surprisingly, over the years there’s been talk about whether Virginia needs a second inland port, this one somewhere in or near Southwest Virginia.

In 2006, Norfolk Southern announced plans for a massive “intermodal” facility in Montgomery County, near Elliston. That may not have been a formal state-operated inland port but the function seemed much the same. Consolidate trains, offload some cargo to trucks, speed some shipments to the port, and so forth. The facility was projected to create 3,000 jobs. Then-Del. William Fralin, R-Roanoke, called it “the biggest economic development announcement in the last 20 years for Roanoke.” Then-Gov. Tim Kaine pledged that the state would pay 70% of the cost. Not everyone shared that vision: Montgomery County, not keen to see a rural part of the county developed into a railyard, sued to block the project. Five years later, in 2011, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled against Montgomery County but by then Norfolk Southern had lost interest. The Elliston intermodal site never happened.

Other places tried. The town of Hurt in Pittsylvania County pitched itself as a possible site for an inland port. Nothing came of that. In 2016, Del. Danny Marshall, R-Danville, proposed a study of an inland port “on U.S. Route 58 near Danville.” That measure didn’t pass, either. Later that year, when Terry McAuliffe was governor, his secretary of transportation, Aubrey Layne, came to Roanoke and told a business group that Southwest Virginia needed an inland port. The next year, state Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, proposed a state study of whether there should be an inland port in the Roanoke or New River valleys. The measure didn’t pass.

Then earlier this year, state Sen. Steve Newman, R-Bedford County, introduced a budget amendment asking for $100,000 to study “the feasibility of establishing an inland port in Region 2000,” the marketing name for Lynchburg and the surrounding counties of Amherst, Bedford, Campbell and Appomattox. By the time the Senate budget came out, that figure had been raised to $200,000, with the proviso that it study both the Lynchburg area and Bristol.

We don’t know what the final budget will or won’t include, but Newman is one of the people negotiating it so I’d like to think the odds are good that he could make sure this money stays in – it’s a smidge of change in the context of a state budget that will weigh in somewhere around $80 billion a year.

Some might wonder why such a study would limit itself to just Bristol and the Lynchburg area. What if there are other places that would be better? We’ll never know if the legislature presupposes the answer. What about the Roanoke Valley? What about the New River Valley? What about Danville? What about Wytheville, which has the intersection of two interstates? Why not a general study asking whether we need a second inland port and, if so, where? (Answer: Welcome to politics! It looks like Bristol and Lynchburg have jumped to the head of the line.)

Whatever places get studied, this study – if it happens – comes at a time when there’s a lot of interest nationally in building more inland ports. Much of this seems driven by the pandemic-related supply chain issues that have seen long backlogs of ships waiting to be unloaded. All of it seems driven by a desire for more economic development.

Don’t just take my word for it. Here’s the Journal of Commerce: “A double-digit increase in US inventories is propelling a search for new inland distribution points and warehousing space and encouraging a more integrated approach to port-to-door logistics.”

Whether formal inland ports or something else, these facilities are booming.

California is proposing to build not one, not two, not three but four inland ports in the San Joaquin Valley – from Sacramento to Bakersfield – plus seven smaller “satellite ports” as a way to relieve congestion at the ports in Long Beach, Los Angeles and Oakland. Total cost: $800 million. California expects private investment to approach $30 billion.

Out on the Canadian prairie, construction will begin this summer on a $2.5 billion expansion of the inland port in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Winnipeg is very inland: The longitudinal center of Canada – or the longitudinal centre, as they’d write it – is just outside of the city. That’s inspired the Winnipeg-based musician John K. Samson, formerly of the Weakerthans, to write songs such as “Longitudinal Centre,” where he sings “The sky looks seasick on the boxcar sway / where the Atlantic and Pacific are the very same far away.” That might seem a disadvantage but Winnipeg has aimed to make it an asset for trade purposes. Now that the Canadian Pacific railway has acquired the Kansas City Southern line, Winnipeg hopes to funnel cargo from the American West through the city for shipment to Canadian ports in either Vancouver or Montreal. (Here all this time we’ve been worried about the southern border only to find it’s those wily Canadians who are sneaking in and stealing our business and taking it back up north.)

Arizona is building a 2,738-acre inland port midway between Phoenix and Tucson as a way to access both the ports in southern California and also Mexico. The first step: $15 million in federal funding. Utah is trying to develop a 16,000-acre inland port near Salt Lake City that supporters say would generate a whopping 58,781 jobs and opponents say would be bad for the environment. Cairo, Illinois is pitching itself as a potential inland port, playing off its Ohio River riverfront and easy access to both rail and interstates. The total cost is put at $300 million; the state has already put up $41 million.

The states that we’d consider competitors have inland ports, often multiple ones.

The American Journal of Transportation credits North Carolina with creating the nation’s first inland port, in Charlotte in 1984.

South Carolina already has two inland ports – in Dillon and Greer, the latter of which is strategically located halfway between Charlotte and Atlanta. South Carolina would obviously like businesses in those cities to ship through South Carolina rather than through the ports in their own states. South Carolina is also in the process of studying a possible $28 million expansion of Inland Port Greer.

Georgia has three – in Chatsworth, Bainbridge and Columbus – and has operated three “pop-up” inland ports since the pandemic backlogs began. The Journal of Commerce reports that Georgia recently signed deals with CSX and Norfolk Southern to use their yards in Huntsville, Alabama, and Rocky Mount, North Carolina, as well. So, yes, Georgia is reaching into North Carolina – two states away – to funnel traffic to its deep-water ports in Brunswick and Savannah. That seems pretty aggressive, but maybe no less aggressive than Winnipeg reaching into the American Midwest on behalf of Vancouver and Montreal.

Viewed in this context, it’s a wonder that Virginia has just one inland port. (Or maybe two; the port at Richmond also serves much the same function but at least Richmond has a river so it’s an actual, conventional port). Perhaps the big question isn’t whether we need an inland port, but what it would mean for the host region, both economically and any other way. Economically, we need only look at Front Royal. The actual number of port employees is relatively small – a couple dozen or so. The key is all the spinoff businesses. In Front Royal’s case, some 40 companies have opened distribution centers in the northern Shenandoah Valley, which is where that estimate of 6,000 jobs comes from. Even if an inland port around Bristol or Lynchburg generated just half that, it’s still a significant number of jobs. (Interestingly, the job estimate for that Norfolk Southern intermodal facility in Elliston was put at 3,000, so, yes, half of Front Royal.) Of course, there will surely also be people who object to an industrial-scale shipping facility springing up in a rural area (there certainly were in Elliston). And Virginia Port Authority spokesman Joseph Harris cautions that inland ports work when they have companies committed to shipping through them. Railroads aren’t going to schedule a train for random loads; they want and need regular traffic.

First, though, we have to see if there’s money for a study. In terms of its potential impact, that could be the most important $200,000 in the state budget.

Dwayne Yancey

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.