With J. Robert 'Bobby' Bray, Executive director, VPA

With J. Robert 'Bobby' Bray, Executive director, VPA

J. Robert "Bobby" Bray joined the Virginia Port Authority as general counsel in 1967 and has been the VPA's executive director since 1978. He was chairman of the American Association of Port Authorities in 1999-2000. This interview took place Sept. 11, 2003.

Q. Two years after the terror attacks, how are we doing?

A. I think the best way to describe it is to say we're still unsettled. I personally am. The country is not the same, and I don't believe it ever will be again. It may be silly to say, but we did truly lose our innocence that day.

Q. Two years later, are we any safer?

A. Marginally, but we have a great ways to go, and the bureaucracy is taking too long to get us there. I've been in government for 30-something years now, so I've got some perspective on this. When you have a group of people who have been eminently successful with whatever agency they are with, then they are thrust into a program where they have to cooperate, it's difficult. Everybody has their own egos, and it's difficult to get them to agree and get on with it. We need to get past that, in terms of who gets the credit, and that kind of business.

Q. What specific areas are you referring to?

A. The thing we need to move with more deliberate speed on is the biometric ID card. My hope would be that the federal government would require there be a biometric ID card. There are certain things the federal agencies want in the card, and beyond that the local ports could put in additional information that they want. But right now the federal agencies involved seem to be having a difficult time getting together on what they want. It's a small piece of the overall security picture, but it's a big piece, because then you really know whether someone belongs on the terminal, who is on the terminal at any given time, and where they are.

Q. Any other security issues on your mind?

A. Customs needs to get additional funding for more VACIS gamma-ray inspection machines or something similar. We have two VACIS machines here and that is not nearly enough, especially if one of them is out of service.

Q. How is your radiation-detection program working for containers?

A. There again, the good news about that is you move the cargo through quickly, but the bad news is there are a lot of things that set them off, and you then have to check the manifest to see if it's something that would ordinarily emit some radiation. Everything has a price, and we know that and understand it, but they seem to be working appropriately.

Q. What opportunities do you see for the federal reauthorization of Tea-21, the highway funding blueprint?

A. We hope that when Tea-21, Safetea, or whatever we're going to call it, is reauthorized, there will be some set-aside money for rail improvements. As a nation, we need to begin to look once again at the importance of rail transportation. One of the ways to improve highway congestion is to put more cargo on the trains. There are a number of projects in Virginia that could benefit from more rail.

Q. When you speak about putting more cargo on trains, it brings to mind the "shore-sea" debate about putting more domestic cargo on the water. Do you think that's a good idea?

A. This goes back to what Malcom McLean started off with more than 40 years ago. It is going to be a more difficult idea to bring about than people think. There is an enormous cost to double-handling cargo over the U.S. water system, and it will be slower than truck or rail. I think it's like so many other things. In specific instances it might work well, but as a general rule I don't know if it is what we're looking for. But it is interesting that we are going back to why Malcom got into the container business in the first place.

Q. The A.P. Moller-Maersk terminal business is gearing up to expand in Virginia. But, traditionally, in the mid-Atlantic, seaports have been operated by a unit of the port authority. Is this an anomaly, or is this where things are going?

A. It may be the start of where things are going. SSA is interested in doing something on the Savannah River, for example. The world has changed enough in that business that terminal operators and ship lines are going to be looking to spend some of their own money to develop terminals. It's a big change that is coming at us. We were created to foster the shipment of maritime cargo through the Commonwealth of Virginia. If we can help someone else to spend their own money to do that, by God we are going to do that.