Uncontained chaos at the Port of Virginia

NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — We first met John Reinhart, CEO and Executive Director of the Virginia Port Authority, when Capt. Richard Phillips was taken hostage by Somali pirates April 8, 2009. At that time, Reinhart was president and CEO of Maersk Line Limited that operated the Maersk Alabama, of which Phillips was captain.

Reinhart was hired at the Port of Virginia, in part, because he fixes things. And that is exactly what John Reinhart has done at the port, since taking over in February 2014.

Consider this: when Reinhart arrived at the port, it had lost $102 million in operating costs over six years. In one year, Reinhart has turned that around. By the end of June, the fiscal-year profit is expected to be $6.2 million dollars — that is a $22.8 million turnaround since the 2014 loss of $16.6 million. Cargo volume is also skyrocketing.

TSR ANDY Port Problems graph

The numbers may reflect that things are great at the port, but many truck drivers say it has never been worse.

Reinhart’s reply is, “Do you remember the movie  ‘Field of Dreams?’ If you build it, they will come. We’ve got the reverse. They’re coming and we haven’t built the field. We’ve got a lot of work to do, so we’ve just got to get it going.”

Truckers at the port told 10 On Your Side they aren’t going anywhere fast when doing business at the Virginia International Gateway, known as VIG in Portsmouth. Chriscina Grayson shared the sentiment of many fellow truckers: “How long have I been waiting? About two hours, two hours! What do I think about that? I think it is ridiculous. It is ridiculous.”

Photos: Truckers wait for hours at the Port of Virginia

The reasons for the backups at VIG: there are too many trucks, too much volume, and a critical need for more equipment. VIG just can’t handle the volume coming through the gates.

Trucks are in the “queue,” waiting for cranes to lift or drop containers. Then there’s another row of trucks waiting “on deck” to move into the “queue.” In the meantime, there are scores of trucks waiting to get in “on-deck.” Until those trucks are cleared, trucks are often kept outside the VIG entrance, and that’s why trucks backed up on 164 in recent weeks.

Many truckers are vocal on the subject.

“I am angry. I am very upset. This is my livelihood. This is the way I pay for my shelter, and my food.  I take care of my children this way,” said Harrison Cox, 28.

“It is really terrible because you have to wait four hours for nothing, and you don’t get paid for it,” Grayson said.

“We keep America running.  Without us America stops. We bring you the socks on your feet, the jacket you have on. We keep America running,” George Berry said.

“This [port] is absolutely horrible. I’ve been doing this 17 years, and this is the worst it’s been. It has continued to get worse, and they have not made any choices or decisions that have benefited anyone in the community other than themselves,” John Anderson said.

“What is the state of the port? Bad state right now … hurry up and wait,” George Jones said.

“My wait as a trucker is, I go into the port and I wait four or five hours before I get to the interchange,” Donna Wellons said.

“Today I know truckers who are getting rid of their trucks because they can’t support their families,” Buzz Hartmann said.

Reinhart responded to these quotes: “That is so disheartening. It is tragic, because what we are trying to do is make it so the motor carrier can survive, so they can make a good living and support their families.”

Reinhart gets knocked that he “doesn’t get it” by many truckers. It is clear, however, that he does get it. In his 2015 State of the Port presentation, he mentioned congestion problems at the port at least ten times.

“We have to turn a vehicle truck in less than 60 minutes,” he said. “As you can see, we haven’t done it … this is what it looks like at VIG, (a picture of heavy congestion pops up on Power Point) and this is unacceptable.”

These are just two quotes from his speech on the matter of congestion. 10 On Your Side asked him about the 10 congestion references.

“This didn’t get screwed up in three weeks, or a month, or six months. This has built up over a number of years — it has been a lack of investment in the infrastructure of the Port of Virginia,” he said. “And what we are now doing is accelerating the infrastructure investments. People say I don’t get it. I get it, and we can do better.”

Reinhart said the port’s profitability will pay for new equipment that will improve the infrastructure, which he says is the problem.

Video: 2015 State of the Port presentation

Trucker George Berry is the director and founder of the advocacy group For Truckers by Truckers. His assessment of the wait times for truckers seems in line with Reinhart’s prescription of the problem.

Berry said, at the Pinner’s Point Container Yard — where empty containers go to wait for pick up — even truckers there are backing up out the gate. Berry said there are not enough container lifters, and that’s causing delays of up to two hours.

“Look, we can see two lifters down here, and one over there … there needs to be more to handle all the trucks … look how many trucks are backing up outside,” Berry said.

Reinhardt said he gets why truck drivers think he doesn’t understand the problem. “Until it improves, I can see how they think it’s just a bunch of lip service. I appreciate that,” he said.

“It’s a disaster. It is mismanagement at its best,” said John Anderson, Reinhart’s sharpest critic.

Anderson records and sends out through social media stinging commentary, and he claims all his suggestions on improvements have been rejected by Reinhart.

“I was just so frustrated. I listened to what John Reinhart had to say [in his State of the Port speech,] and it was so much garbage, I couldn’t keep quiet anymore,” Anderson said in his rebuttal to the State of the Port speech.

Reinhardt responded to Anderson’s garbage comment with: “He’s got some really good ideas. He is somebody who is doing the work … people who do the work have to be involved with the solutions or you make bad decisions.”

Reinhart knows the port and he knows pain. He got emotional remembering his son, Jake, who died at the age of 23 from a brain aneurysm. Jake worked in a port-related business. 10 On Your Side asked Reinhart if that experience created a vested interest in him for the Port of Virginia.

“One of the reasons I took this job was for my son. I want kids in this Commonwealth to have a job when they get out of school. Those are the gates,” he said.

Just like that, Reinhart switched his attention to “those” gates. He stood in the Port Tower at Norfolk International Terminal and looked out at the 15 gates that bring in and take out trucks carrying containers. Reinhart pointed out a new port policy to alter inbound and outbound gates: when more trucks are trying to leave than enter, the inbound gates become outbound gates to keep the trucks moving.

WAVY.com asked Reinhart if he runs the best port in America. It was a softball question with the obvious answer: “Of course we do.” However, that is not the answer Reinhart gave.

“Not yet,” Reinhart replied. “We have the best potential port in America. We have the natural advantages here. We have to make it the best by the way we invest and the way we serve.”

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