The Port of Norfolk is located on the banks of the Elizabeth River at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. It is part of an urban area that also contains Portsmouth, Chesapeake, Virginia Beach, Hampton Roads, Newport News and Hampton. Collectively, this region is called Hampton Roads and elements of the Port of Virginia are located in the region.


The surrounding waterways, its location at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay and its protected deep-water channels make the Port of Virginia an important trade center for goods traveling between the North American Mid-Atlantic and Midwest regions as well as for international goods. 

The Port of Virginia is centrally located in the Mid-Atlantic region. It is a 2.5 hour sail to the open sea, a two-day drive to 75% of the U.S. population, has direct interstate highway access from all terminals and is the largest intermodal rail port on the East Coast, with the port’s Smart Stack® service to/from service to 19 inland destinations. The port also has the largest ship-to-shore cranes in the Western Hemisphere. 

Virginia’s ports have been economic engines for the state for more than 400 years. As stated on the website, “From the early founding as America’s First Port at Jamestown in 1607 through the era of the great clipper ships to the present day sophistication of computerized inter-modal technology, Virginia has been at the forefront of every major change in the shipping industry.” 

Today, the deepest harbor on the East Coast of the United States shelters the world’s largest naval base; a thriving shipbuilding and repair industry; an export coal trade and the sixth-largest containerized cargo complex in the United States. 

Port of Virginia cranes stand ready.
(Photo: Port of Virginia)

The port has inbound and outbound channels that are currently 50 feet deep. It is the only port on the East Coast with Congressional authorization to dredge to 55 feet. The Norfolk Harbor Dredging Project will attain depths of 55 feet – remaining the deepest channel on the East Coast. 

The Port of Virginia is a hub port; nearly 30 international shipping lines offer direct, dedicated service to and from Virginia, with connections to 200+ countries around the world. During an average week, in excess of 40 international container, breakbulk or roll-on/roll-off ships are serviced at the port’s marine terminals.

Forty years ago, the Commonwealth of Virginia consolidated the operations of its major general cargo facilities under a single, private company – a state-sanctioned corporation named Virginia International Terminals Inc., or VIT. Virginia was the first U.S. state to take this action.

In addition, Hampton Roads Chassis Pool, LLC, on behalf of and wholly owned by VIT, operates and manages the intermodal chassis and empty container yards.

Early history

Before European settlers arrived, the Powhatan Renape, a confederacy of tribes and a subdivision of the Algonquian Nation, controlled the territory along Chesapeake Bay that Virginia’s ports now occupy. While they failed, the Powhatan sought to remove the English settlers off of their lands. Attacks from 1622 to 1644 brought reprisals from the English; by 1646 the Powhatan Confederacy had been virtually eliminated by the settlers’ diseases and their firearms. 

In 1619, the governor of the Virginia Colony created four incorporations (cities) along Chesapeake Bay. Norfolk and Newport News were part of the Elizabeth Cittie incorporation. 

The Towne of Lower Norfolk County was established by the colony’s House of Burgesses in 1680. The Port of Norfolk was incorporated in 1705. In 1736, King George II granted a charter to establish the Port of Norfolk as a borough.

By 1775, the Port of Norfolk was Virginia’s most prosperous city and it was a key export port for goods being sent to the British Empire. Because of its close ties with Great Britain, it was a key Loyalist base during the American Revolution. 

However, in 1776, a fleet of three British ships bombarded the Port of Norfolk. Fires destroyed almost two-thirds of the city; then the American patriots destroyed the surviving buildings. After its destruction during the Revolutionary War, the Port of Norfolk was struggling in the early 1800s. Another fire in 1804 destroyed much of the waterfront, and the Port of Norfolk suffered  economic decline. A recession in the South during the 1820s and depleted soils from tobacco cultivation caused many area residents to move. 

During the Civil War, the Battle of Hampton Roads was the first fight between ironclad vessels (the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia). While that 1862 battle was considered a draw, the mayor surrendered the Port of Norfolk to Union forces later that year. The Port of Norfolk was under martial law for the remainder of the war.

A railroad was built to coincide with the Jamestown Exposition of 1907, which commemorated the 300th anniversary of the ill-fated colony. A major Naval Review was held  during the Exposition, which led to the establishment of what would become the world’s largest naval base. As the United States was preparing to enter World War I in 1917, the Naval Air Station Hampton Roads was built on the old Exposition grounds in the Port of Norfolk.

The port expanded through annexation of nearby communities during the first decades of the 20th century. As the Interstate Highway System was being built the port was linked by bridges and tunnels with Portsmouth, Virginia Beach and the Peninsula.

Intermodal containers being loaded on trucks. (Photo: Port of Virginia)

Virginia Port Authority

The Virginia Port Authority (VPA) was created in 1952 to develop port-related commerce in the state. Starting in the early 1970s, the VPA acquired the marine terminals in Norfolk, Portsmouth and Newport News from those cities.

As noted above, VIT was incorporated as a private, tax-exempt company in 1981 to run the Port Authority’s terminals. This was a first-of-a-kind  arrangement in the maritime industry. 

The Virginia Inland Port, which is a truck-and-rail interchange for goods shipped through Hampton Roads, opened in Front Royal, Virginia in 1988. 

Growth of the port accelerated in the early 1990s. Then in 1992 new contracts were signed with leading shipping lines Evergreen, Maersk, ACL and Lykes Lines to move cargo through the port. 

By 1997 the port’s success allowed the Port Authority to no longer request funds from the state to run its operations. Beginning then, the authority’s operating needs have been funded by VIT terminal revenue. (However, the VPA continues to receive state funds to pay down debt and for capital expenses.)

On July 30, 2007, APM Terminals Inc. opened a $500 million state-of-the-art terminal along the Elizabeth River in Portsmouth. In May 2010, an agreement for the VPA to lease APM’s terminal for 20 years was announced. Then in 2014, Alinda Capital Partners purchased the terminal from APMT, renaming it Virginia International Gateway, or VIG.  Alinda and the VPA signed a 49-year lease in 2016, under which the VPA is now operating the terminal.

In 2019, the VPA finished a three-year, $312 million investment that re-engineered the terminal. The project doubled VIG’s container and rail capacity to 1.2 million units and 480,000 lifts respectively. Its berth was extended to handle up to three ultra-large container vessels (ULCVs) and incorporated the port’s trucker reservation system (PRO-PASS®) for trucks that has improved productivity at the gates. 

It is the largest privately owned container terminal in the U.S. It is the first of the port’s semi-automated container terminals. The facility is also a U.S. Customs-designated port of entry, and the full range of Customs and Border Protection functions is available. VIG sits on a total footprint of 576 acres.

An aerial view of part of the Port of Virginia. (Photo: FreightWaves)

Economic impact

An economic impact study by The College of William & Mary confirmed the port had a major effect on Virginia’s economy in fiscal year 2018, (July 1, 2018-June 30, 2019).

The study showed that 390,000 Virginia jobs – nearly 10% of the state’s workforce – were linked to port activity. Those jobs generated $23 billion in annual compensation and $2.1 billion in state and local taxes. Other highlights of the study of the port’s impact include: 

• $92.1 billion in output sales (10.8% of Virginia’s estimated output purchases)
• $39.3 billion in Virginia’s gross state product (7.5% of the Commonwealth’s total GSP)
• $23.0 billion in Virginia labor income (7.0% of total employment compensation)
• 397,094 full- and part-time jobs (9.5% of Virginia’s FY 2018 resident employment)
• $2.1 billion in state and local taxes and fees (4.2% of total state and local revenues)


The Virginia Port Authority includes six terminals located on 1,864 acres. The port includes 19,885 linear feet of berth, which are up to 50 feet deep and 30 miles of on-dock rail. Located on 567 acres along the Elizabeth and Lafayette rivers, Norfolk International Terminals (NIT) is the port’s largest terminal. NIT is served by 14 super-post-panamax class ship-to-shore  cranes, capable of handling the newest class of ULCVs now docking along the East Coast.

NIT has three major sections – its South Terminal, North Terminal and Central Rail Yard. The terminal has direct, on-dock rail access to Norfolk Southern’s Heartland Corridor, allowing second-day double-stack service to inland markets. CSX Intermodal access is also available at NIT.  

Located adjacent to I-64, I-564 and Hampton Boulevard in Norfolk, NIT processes thousands of daily truck moves through 42 interchange lanes and two on-terminal transfer zones.

Between 2015 and 2025, the port will have invested $1.5 billion in its infrastructure. Among the projects are expansion of the two primary cargo terminals in Norfolk harbor; improvements to the Richmond Marine Terminal; expanding the functions of the Virginia Inland Port in Front Royal; and dredging to create the deepest seaport on the U.S. East Coast.

Almost one-third of the $1.5 billion is the terminal optimization project, which began in January 2018 This $452 million state-funded project will increase the total capacity of NIT by 46% within the same footprint. Together, VPA will boast an added capacity of over 1 million containers with  the expansion project at VIG and the NIT project. 

Part of the rail infrastructure at the Port of Virginia. (Photo: Port of Virginia)

Naval Station Norfolk 

The United States Navy base in Norfolk is the headquarters and home port of the U.S. Navy’s Fleet Forces Command. The base occupies about 4 miles of waterfront space and 11 miles of pier and wharf space of the Hampton Roads peninsula. It is the world’s largest naval station, with the largest concentration of U.S. Navy forces. 

An aerial photo of Naval Station Norfolk. (Photo:

It is also the home port for the Second Fleet and the headquarters for NATO’s Allied Command Transformation and the U.S. Joint Forces Command. The port area is also home to many defense industries, particularly those that build and repair ships. A number of important private shipyards are located in the area, and the U.S. Navy’s Norfolk Naval Shipyard is located in Portsmouth. Economists report that over 35% of the Gross Regional Product and 75% of all 21st century regional growth can be attributed to U.S. defense spending.