The Port of Virginia is extraordinarily important to the economic vitality of the Commonwealth. It generates 530,000 jobs — one of every nine across the state — and has an overall annual economic impact of $88.4 billion throughout Virginia. It is not surprisingly an extremely busy place. In 2018, 1.6 million containers passed through its terminals.

The port, however, has major competitors up and down the East Coast, including the Port of New York and New Jersey, the Port of Savannah and the Port of Charleston. To maintain its competitive position, the Port of Virginia has embarked on a $350 million effort to deepen its harbor to accommodate the ultra-large container vessels now moving through the Panama Canal. It is also investing $700 million in expanding its container capacity by 40 percent by 2020 and streamlining its operations.

As part of its efforts to ensure it makes the most of these investments, it has called on the Commonwealth Center for Advanced Logistics Systems, a consortium that brings together industry, government and universities to ensure that Virginia deploys solutions based on the latest research about the flow of goods and information. The port asked the Commonwealth Center to help it fine-tune its strategic plan, assess its operations, and model and simulate intended terminal expansions and improvements. The goal is to heighten the port’s operational efficiency while developing a more in-depth understanding of the risks its faces.

“We have to pursue every avenue to operate our terminals as efficiently, effectively and as safely as possible,” said John F. Reinhart, CEO and executive director for the Virginia Port Authority. “Connecting with the knowledge-base and experience at CCALS is an innovative solution that will help steer our efforts.”

Moving Containers More Efficiently

The Commonwealth Center for Advanced Logistics Systems chose James H. Lambert, a professor in the University of Virginia’s Department of Engineering Systems and Environment and director of UVA’s Center for Risk Management of Engineering Systems, to lead the project.

It is hard to imagine a better choice. Lambert chaired the Fifth World Congress on Risk this spring in Cape Town, South Africa, an event that drew hundreds of participants from around the world. He is a fellow and past president of the Society for Risk Analysis, the preeminent professional group in the field. He is also a fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers and a member of its Systems Council, and a fellow of the American Society of Civil Engineers.

The port was particularly interested in reducing truck turnaround times for its motor carriers. This is critical, because 62 percent of the cargo arriving at the port leaves by truck. In 2015, truckers complained that it typically took four to five hours to drop off and pick up containers at the Virginia International Gateway, one of the port’s two primary container terminals.

“Turnaround times is the number one operational metric for the port,” Lambert said. “It is essential that they get it right.”

Lambert and his students created a simulation that highlighted the advantages of adding onsite services for truck repair in addition to adding cranes and building berths to accommodate larger ships. This was a complex project, as Lambert’s team identified 19 different truck routing sequences at the port.

Their analysis confirmed that the port was on the right track, a conclusion borne out by port results this year. In February, the port announced that the turn time at the gateway dropped by more than 33 percent in December and January compared to the previous two months.

“The port was really pleased with the work that Jim and his students did on turn times and other projects,” said Thomas Polmateer, secretary of the Commonwealth Center for Advanced Logistics Systems and member of its board of directors. “As a result, the port has been asking them to take on a growing menu of projects, from making a dashboard of ship arrivals to studying the potential of liquefied natural gas provisioning there.”

Lambert has seven graduate students working on this project as well as an equal number of undergraduates. “We started on a limited project, and we have demonstrated that with the expertise we have in the department, we can do a lot more,” Lambert said.

Lambert research group studies Virginia maps

Professor James H. Lambert discusses freight corridors in Virginia with his Engineering Systems and Environment students, who are part of team working to improve turnaround times at the Port of Virginia's trucking terminals.