The Port of Virginia, the Virginia Economic Development Partnership and local governments are going to do their best to bring an inland port to Southwest Virginia, Robert Martinez, vice president of freight and economic development for the consulting firm Moffatt & Nichol, said in Wise on Thursday.
“We can bring this together,” Martinez said during a session on transportation during the annual Southwest Virginia Economic Forum, which drew about 300 local leaders and business people to the University of Virginia’s College at Wise.
Moffatt & Nichol conducted a study, commissioned by the General Assembly, on the feasibility of opening the state’s second inland port and looked at two areas as possible locations: the Lynchburg and Bristol regions.
The study determined that the Central Virginia Planning District, centered around Lynchburg, “does not currently have the demand to justify the development of an inland port,” but the Mount Rogers Planning District, which has six counties and two cities in Southwest Virginia, “meets enough market-driven and physical conditions to warrant additional assessment.”
At inland ports, cargo coming to or from coast ports is transferred between trains and trucks, which can relieve traffic at deep-water ports and reduce the cost of moving cargo by replacing trucks with trains.
Virginia currently has one inland port near Front Royal. The facility has spurred a number of investments by distributors and manufacturers who otherwise would not have located there, Martinez said.
Bringing an inland port to Southwest Virginia would change the freight market that the region competes in, he added.
Two possible sites with the right geography and the “right concentration of potential users” have been identified in the Mount Rogers area, he said, but he did not name them.
He cautioned that an inland port can’t be built until customers are on board and added that it’s less expensive to ship by rail, but not as timely as shipping by truck.
The project is in the very early stages, according to Martinez, who said it would take about three years to complete, one for engineering design and the last two for construction.
He and Jason El Koubi, president and CEO of the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, both said there appears to be momentum for the project and bipartisan support in both the House of Delegates and state Senate for funding, although they noted that the General Assembly’s budget impasse continues.
Martinez said he’s “fairly convinced” that if the money doesn’t come through this summer, Gov. Glenn Youngkin will include some funding for the project in his next budget in December, which would be considered by the General Assembly in 2024.
The possibility of passenger rail being extended to Bristol also was discussed Thursday. Colin Burch, planning manager of the Virginia Passenger Rail Authority, warned that even if it is eventually approved, it could be up to a decade before anything happens.
He said the project would require a significant federal investment; projects that involve more than one state are generally regarded more favorably, he said, and noted Bristol’s proximity to Tennessee.
Passenger rail service currently extends as far west as Roanoke, although plans are in place to add service to the New River Valley within the next several years.