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February 2, 2018 2:15 PM, EST

Port of Virginia to Introduce Appointment System on March 1

Redevelopment Project Includes Delivery of Six Cranes
The Happy Buccaneer arrives at the Port of Virginia The Happy Buccaneer arrives on Feb. 2 from Poland carrying six gantry cranes due to be installed at Norfolk International Terminals. (Port of Virginia)

The Virginia Port Authority is launching an online trucker appointment system at Norfolk International Terminals beginning March 1, a decision port officials hope will shorten turn times.

For the beneficial cargo owner, the ultimate goal is a smooth and predictable supply chain, achievable if port authorities and truckers can minimize disruptions in the terminals.

But as larger vessels cross the Panama Canal, terminals are struggling to seamlessly move more containers in single visits. Extra space is necessary to store the concentrated volumes and a rigorous schedule of slotting trucks into windows is viewed by port authorities as a way to combat the crush to pick up the boxes.

“This system allows us to manage flow at the gates, it creates efficiency for our terminal operations teams and for drivers, it provides greater visibility to cargo owners and it is a planning tool for us and everyone that moves their cargo to the port by truck,” Virginia Port Authority CEO John Reinhart said. “The goal is improved delivery of service.”

Truck drivers will be required to reserve a timeslot between 5 a.m. and 7 a.m. Monday through Friday and until 8 a.m. beginning March 15. (Mandatory appointment hours will expand once truckers become familiar with the procedures.)

The port authority expects to implement the system at Virginia International Gateway on June 30.

“The challenges we are having at our gates are very telling and an important learning experience,” Reinhart said. “We are learning that as our volumes grow and we begin to bring more capacity online, we must ensure flow at our gates throughout the day. Having all the motor carriers show up when we open is not efficient. Spreading out the truck volume across the day is the solution and we’ve developed an innovative, fair, easy and useful way of doing it.”

The Happy Buccaneer is assisted by tugboats on its way to deliver the gantry cranes. (Gary Backus/Port of Virginia)

However, there are concerns in the trucking industry about whether the appointment system will work effectively, especially during the construction underway at the two major container terminals.

The Port of Virginia is in the middle of a $695 million redevelopment project to double the container capacity at Norfolk International Terminals and Virginia International Gateway. Part of the vision includes a $217 million contract signed with Konecranes last November to build 86 rail-mounted gantry cranes. Six of them arrived Feb. 2 from Poland on the Happy Buccaneer and will go into service in April. In total, 26 cranes will operate at the Virginia International Gateway and the remaining 60 will go to Norfolk International Terminals. By 2020, the Virginia Port Authority expects to increase container capacity 40%, or an additional 1 million container units.

Stihl USA told Transport Topics that the Port of Virginia is an excellent partner and is optimistic about an appointment system. The power tool company imports and exports through Norfolk, Va.

While it remains to be seen how the online appointment system will fully impact Stihl, any changes that create efficiencies at the Port would be beneficial for a high volume importer-exporter like Stihl,” the company said in a statement.

For the trucking community, there are unresolved questions and skepticism about the rules.

George Berry, director of For Truckers by Truckers, a Facebook group catered to port drivers, wants to know what happens if a gantry crane malfunctions during the day. He said this happens several times each week, forcing truckers to wait several hours and making containers in the affected stack virtually inaccessible.

“What is going to happen to my appointment if my container is in that stack?” asked Berry, who also is a terminal manager with Pioneer Transport. “At VIG, the maintenance of the cranes is, quite frankly, deplorable. These cranes are always working, non-stop, until they break down. And these are the types of machines that will be coming to NIT.”

In such a situation, the Virginia Port Authority told TT the reservation would be canceled and a notification would be automatically sent to the trucker.

The Tidewater Motor Truck Association supports the reinvestment but also is concerned about unresolved issues.

“We’ve asked how many moves can you do during the one-hour window. We’ve asked if our truck shows up on time, will our turn time be within one hour. We may not have these answers until the system is in operation,” said Marilynn Ryan, TMTA president and operations manager at Century Express. She also wonders what will happen if there are no available chassis.

The Virginia Port Authority responded motor carriers must still reserve a chassis with as much notice as possible, even after March 1.

“The reservation data will be shared with [the Hampton Roads Chassis Pool] to offer insight into future demand, however that data will only be useful if there is enough lead time to take action. This is where the reservation system will allow us to improve operational planning,” the authority said.

Stakeholders in Los Angeles, Long Beach and Oakland, Calif., where some terminals require appointments, also keep an eye on whether reservations actually reduce turn times. Truckers are closely watching a new system at Global Container Terminals in the Port of New York and New Jersey to see if it delivers on the promise too.