The most consequential political news of the year has nothing to do with abortion, guns or any of the other issues that animate our political culture. Instead, it’s the budgetary news that both the House and Senate versions of the state budget include money to buy land for an inland port somewhere between Wythe County and Bristol – and the House version even includes money to build it.
A year ago, there was no public discussion of an inland port in Southwest Virginia. Now the first stage is on the verge of being funded.
For this, we should thank state Sen. Todd Pillion, R-Washington County, who got a study of an inland port in the Mount Rogers Planning District tacked onto a bill last year (assuming, that is, you think this is a good idea).
Ultimately, though, we should thank … the Dutch.
In 1984, officials from the Virginia Port Authority were touring Europe. They were looking to increase the amount of business going through the port, although one danger of increasing traffic is that you risk increasing congestion and causing ships to back up in the harbor. As part of the tour, the Virginians paid a visit to Rotterdam, the continent’s largest seaport. The most interesting thing in Rotterdam, though, wasn’t in Rotterdam. It was 100 miles inland in the city of Venlo. Two years before, in 1982, the Dutch had built an “inland port” in Venlo, a place where they could collect export traffic and process it to save time and relieve congestion at the actual port – and also do the same for imports. The beauty of the inland port at Venlo (a city of about 100,000) was that it sits near the German border. That wasn’t so convenient during World War II but is now, because Venlo is just an hour away from the German industrial heartland in the Ruhr, making the city a good collection point for freight.
“We returned from this trip convinced that the theory of an inland port could work for us at VPA,” wrote retired Virginia Port Authority director Bobby Bray in a history of Virginia’s inland port. The port authority knew that most of its cargo wasn’t coming from or going to Virginia – it was connected to the Midwest. If the Virginia port wanted to increase traffic through Hampton Roads, it needed a way to persuade more Midwestern companies to ship through Virginia, not other ports that might be closer. An inland port was a way to cheat geography and move Hampton Roads a little closer to the Midwest, particularly if this inland port were located in the northern Shenandoah Valley where it might be able to divert Midwestern traffic that might otherwise go to ports in Baltimore, Philadelphia or New York.
The Virginia Port Authority wasn’t alone in thinking this way. The Norfolk Southern railway was also keen to increase its traffic to and from the port. That made the two natural allies. The third, and perhaps most important, ally was a soft-spoken son of Patrick County who could see things that others sometimes couldn’t. Gerald Baliles was elected governor in 1985 and promptly set to work on two things: improving the state’s transportation network and expanding its international trade. Roads had long been a state concern but international trade was still something relatively new for political consideration. When Baliles prepared to leave the governorship, The Roanoke Times described an interview with him this way:
“Pulling out a map of the world and focusing on Virginia’s place on the map with a fascination many men would show for a Playboy centerfold, Baliles said ‘it used to be that economic growth could be attracted from within the country’s borders. It used to be we could trade within our own country. But the fact is that in the last 10 years this country has lost its economic insularity. Virginia’s borders today are no longer surrounding states but Brussels, Brazil, Tokyo, Toronto. It used to be that our competition was South Carolina; now it’s South Korea. Virginia, especially at a time when the federal government is pulling back, has got to be able to compete in world markets.’”
As governor, Baliles led eight overseas trade missions, a figure that was considered extravagant at the time and earned him political criticism for “globe-trotting” and “overblown self-promotion.”
However, when Bray came to Baliles with the novel idea of an inland port, he found a kindred spirit.
Baliles passed away in 2019 but his former speechwriter, G.C. Morse, remembers quite vividly how the inland port came to be. “I think Bobby gets huge credit for seeing what could be accomplished and proposing it to Baliles,” Morse told me in an email. “For the governor’s part, my recollection is that it was a no-brainer. Yes. Let’s do it. I remember the meeting – it was in the third-floor conference room – and it was uncharacteristically un-deliberative, if you follow. The idea smacked of being innovative, imaginative and consistent with what Baliles was trying to convey, that state government could do creative things. He had this ‘Oh, boy!’ reaction to certain things.”
This was one of those.
There was skepticism, as there is with any new idea. However, things moved pretty quickly, by government standards. By July 1987, the Virginia Port Authority had acquired a site near Front Royal and on March 1, 1989, the Virginia Inland Port officially opened – the first in the country.
That turned out to be the easy part.
For the first three years, the inland port faced a real challenge: Few of the big shippers used it because, as Bray recalls, nobody wanted to be the first. “None of them moved any cargo through there,” he says. “We were having a heck of a time. … It was a real keeping-you-up-at-night problem.”
Even though cargo volumes were low, the port authority remembered one piece of advice that the Dutch had impressed upon them: The train to and from the port must run every day, no matter what. If shippers can’t see that the train schedule is reliable, they’ll never use the inland port. So even though cargo volumes were low, the train between Front Royal and Norfolk ran every day, Monday through Saturday.
Then Virginia got lucky. One weekend there was a labor action at the Baltimore port that shut things down for a weekend. That may not seem long, but at the time shippers had no idea how long it would last and they panicked. They also turned to this newfangled facility in Virginia. “As our phones began ringing, we began working,” Bray wrote in his history. “NS added a train for VIP and we called in VIP staff to work over the weekend. Over the two days, we moved hundreds of containers on an emergency basis for our customers. Hard times still lay ahead, but we had proven ourselves and the world knew it.”
Eventually companies started building warehouses in the area, and that’s what cemented the inland port’s success by providing a stable base of business. “That’s what really got it going,” Bray said. “Once somebody started using it, others picked up on it.” Since then, the inland port concept has spread. South Carolina now has two, both funneling shipments to and from Charleston. Georgia has three, directing traffic to water ports in Savannah and Brunswick. Utah has been trying to build one to consolidate traffic headed to or from the California ports. And now Virginia appears on the way toward having a second one as well. “It’s not one of those things where you build it and they will come,” Bray said. “It’s not that simple. You’ve got a basic amount of cargo that will use that facility.” And it sounds as if patience is required for those cargo loads to develop.
There is lots of work that lies ahead if Southwest Virginia is to get an inland port – and potential controversy once an actual site is selected. If, however, someday a second inland port opens in Southwest Virginia, the origins of that facility will owe something to Bray, Baliles – and some innovators on the other side of the Atlantic.