A straddle carrier moves outside rail containers at the Virginia Inland Port in Warren County in 2010. Rich Cooley/Daily file

The Virginia Inland Port in Warren County is the recipient of a $15.5 million grant that will help ease traffic in and out of the port as well as decrease traffic around the port.

The grant will establish three new loading tracks, extend the current rail tracks, purchase two new carriers and build a new highway bridge grade separation, according to a news release from Senators Tim Kaine and Mark Warner.

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Better Utilizing Investment to Leverage Development (BUILD) Grant, formerly the TIGER Grant, supports capital projects focusing on infrastructure, improving access to communities and jobs, as well as projects that bring economic revitalization and job growth to local areas.

The BUILD Grant is partnered with a separate grant in tandem with the Rail Enhancement Fund. Federal dollars from the BUILD Grant are set aside to address building a right of way bridge crossing at Rockland Road. The Rail Enhancement Fund Grant will focus on improving access in and out of the port.

Before applying for the BUILD Grant, the Port of Virginia established a partnership with the Rail Enhancement Fund, putting down $3.3 million to partially match a $7.7 million investment on improving access.

Dustin Rinehart, director of state and local government affairs for the port, said the Rail Enhancement Fund grant helped show the U.S. Department of Transportation the port had some “skin in the game.”

“The funds that were pledged to do the onsite construction were used to leverage the BUILD Grant,” Rinehart said. “When we applied for the BUILD Grant, we had that in mind in the application that we are putting our money where our mouth is already.”

The Virginia Inland Port in Warren County offers a key shipping and trucking center for national and international businesses looking to expand throughout the state. The 161-acre port has a capacity of 78,000 shipping containers. The port has been in use for 30 years, drawing businesses such as Home Depot, Rite Aid and Red Bull to the area.

While the Inland Port has benefitted the local economy, it has burdened the already-busy Interstate 66 and Interstate 81 as well as backing up traffic at railroad crossings.

Jennifer McDonald, executive director of the Warren County Economic Development Authority, said the Inland Port’s presence is vital for economic growth in the area, but traffic is a bit of a double-edged sword.

“No matter if the company is located in Front Royal, Winchester or Shenandoah County, Warren County is going to get that truck traffic coming to the Inland Port,” McDonald said. “I do believe that this grant is going to help that problem.”

“It’s a bad problem for the citizens, but it’s also a good problem to have,” McDonald continued. “When you have all those trucks, it means all those businesses are importing and exporting.”

In 2016, Warren County supervisors began discussions on seeking funds to build and design a right of way for a bridge over the crossing at Rockland Road. At the time, the estimated cost was around $11 million.

A year later, Warren County returned to address the issue, seeking a TIGER Grant for the blocked railroad issue. The estimated cost rose to $14 million over that time.

Joe Harris, a port spokesman, said the grade separation is a safety and traffic flow issue.

“The community has raised that concern to us several times over the past couple of years. We promised we would work with them toward a solution,” he said.

The port will be partnering with the Virginia Department of Transportation on building the crossing on Rockland Road. Timelines on start and end dates for the project are still unclear but the plan, Rinehart said, was to get the preliminary engineering done and move forward with the project right away.

Frederick County Economic Development Authority Executive Director Patrick Barker said the grant would continue to help the valley attract new businesses.

“Highway access, transportation has and continues to be one of the significant site selection factor for companies when they’re looking to expand or add a new facility, Barker said. “The more robust, the more quality, the more you can lessen the risk of a client having issues with getting their product, whether it's raw or finished, around the transportation network is a positive move in the right direction.”

The Virginia Port, including the Norfolk, Newport News and Portsmouth terminals along with the Inland Port, have benefitted from more than $1.5 billion in economic development investment since 2017.

Funding from the BUILD and REF grants comes in the form of reimbursements, and all of the money needs to be spent by 2025.

Harris said investments like these are part of the port’s effort to improve sustainability, both in terms of economic growth as well as overall health for the community.

“There’s an environmental component to this as well,” Harris said. “The more rail cargo we move to the Inland Port by train, we are taking trucks off the interstate. There’s a congestions mitigation factor we look as well. As we build rail volume in and out of the Inland Port, it helps reduce truck traffic on the roads in Virginia.”

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