Major New Container Port Under Construction for Portsmouth, Va.

PORTSMOUTH -- The dredges and cranes are visible from the West Norfolk Bridge. There's a construction entrance off Coast Guard Boulevard. But the woods along the Western Freeway hide much of the huge project.

It's not easy to see, but the work on APM Terminals North America Inc.'s new container port in Churchland is forging ahead.

Dredging for the channel and ship berths is half done. Trees have been cleared from the areas that weren't soybean and wheat fields. And construction of the wharf has just begun. Still, much of the uplands remain a muddy mess.

But in two years and about six weeks, if all goes as scheduled, the new $450 million APM terminal will open to serve Maersk Sealand, the world's largest shipping line. Maersk Sealand and APM Terminals are sister companies owned by A.P. Moller Maersk, a conglomerate based in Copenhagen, Denmark.

"From where it was three months ago, it's very exciting for us," said Edward McCarthy, general manager of APM Terminals Virginia. "We went from nothing going on three months ago to fields being cleared, trees coming down and now the wharf going in."

The Portsmouth terminal is one of the largest business investments in Hampton Roads' history. The terminal will help the port handle surging cargo import volumes, particularly from Asia. It also will provide competition to the Virginia Port Authority for the first time in decades.

The new terminal will be able to handle about 1 million 20 -foot-equivalent units of containers a year once it's fully operational, McCarthy said. Twenty-foot-equivalent units are a universal measure for containers, which come in 20-, 40- and 53-foot lengths.

Maersk Sealand recently announced a plan to merge with P&O Nedlloyd, the No. 4 container line in the world.

"With Maersk and P&O volumes, we're more than half full in phase 1," McCarthy said. "We still need third-party lines to fill out the terminal."

APM Terminals bought the 575-acre riverfront parcel, known as the Cox property, in 2001. The land lies between the Western Freeway and the U.S. Coast Guard Support Center. After securing the needed permits, APM Terminals announced the project last year.

The new terminal will replace APM's existing 71-acre facility with two small, aging container cranes adjacent to the Virginia Port Authority's Portsmouth Marine Terminal.

"Our capacity to load out now is pretty challenged," McCarthy conceded. "That's another reason we're building a bigger terminal."

When completed, the facility will cover 290 acres of the property and feature a 4,000-foot wharf and 10 large, new cranes. It will be able to accommodate three large ships and a smaller one at the same time.

About 150 acres of the site are permanently protected wetlands, providing a buffer between the terminal and Churchland.

Dredging began last August. The dredges, owned by Weeks Marine Inc. of Cranford, N.J., are digging out a 50-foot access channel off the Norfolk Harbor channel and a 55-foot berth. About 10 million cubic yards of Elizabeth River bottom are being pumped into the Army Corps of Engineers' Craney Island disposal area nearby.

Weeks Marine is also constructing the wharf under a contract that could be worth as much as $117 million. Its workers have installed about a third of the bulkhead that will protect the shoreline under the first phase's 3,200-foot wharf. An additional 800 feet will be added later.

APM is reviewing bids for construction of the container yard, where incoming and outgoing boxes will be stored and loaded on and off of trucks and trains, McCarthy said.

The marshy land needs to be surcharged with tons of gravel to establish a solid base for paving the yard.

The Virginia Department of Transportation awarded a $17.7 million contract to Tidewater Skanska to design and build the road access off the Western Freeway into the terminal. The terminal's entrance will be near where Wild Duck Lane comes off Wyatt Drive, which parallels the freeway.

Last week, VDOT disclosed that it would build a dedicated exit off the Western Freeway for the terminal, after APM proposed it and offered to pay for the added cost.

APM also is negotiating with Norfolk Southern Railway and the state to bring a rail line into the facility along Coast Guard Boulevard, McCarthy said. The spur would come off Commonwealth Railway's line, which runs into the West Norfolk neighborhood just south of the freeway. APM's plans call for a rail yard with six lines at the current construction entrance and staging area.