STATE OF VIRGINIA, RICHMOND FEUD OVER PORT PROJECTS AND FUNDING

STATE OF VIRGINIA, RICHMOND FEUD OVER PORT PROJECTS AND FUNDING

Things aren't so genteel in the Old South these days.

A feud is raging between the Port of Richmond and the Virginia Port Authority, the state agency that controls the Port of Hampton Roads. Emotions are running high.Richmond's city council last fall rejected an offer by the state port authority to turn its port facilities over to state control. Since that time, however, the city has kept on hammering for state funding on its port projects.

The state monies are doled out by the Virginia Port Authority - and it, especially after Richmond's recent rebuff, doesn't think Richmond is entitled to everything it wants from the state coffers. Richmond's efforts to get more money, especially its moves to get local politicians to pressure the state port agency, aren't very pleasing to executives at the Virginia Port Authority.

Part of the problem, according to sources in the Virginia port community, is that Richmond doesn't know its place.

The little port - encouraged by a rise in volume during the 1980s - thinks it can become a bigger contender in the freight market. It wants to extend its dock wall so that it can handle more vessels at a time. It also plans to light and dredge the James River so that bigger vessels can have access, even at night, to its docks.

But what one wants and gets are two different questions. The dredging project isn't off the ground yet, and Virginia maritime executives think it is unlikely it ever will be, given the limited resources Richmond has to work with.

The lighting project is almost completed, but it went more than two times over its original $550,000 budget. And the dock wall proposal has only increased the acrimonious dispute between the city port and the state port agency.

Will the three projects actually succeed in luring more traffic to the port? Richmond handled 413,852 tons of cargo in 1989; a drop from the previous year's total of 459,350 tons. Some Virginia port executives believe that is a sign Richmond's business is falling off. The port, they say, should concentrate on maintaining what it has rather than trying to become a bigger player.

Dan Meehan, owner of Meehan Overseas Terminals Inc., Richmond's stevedore, tried making this point to the Richmond commissioners at a recent meeting. Richmond should concentrate on maintaining its position as a supplement to Hampton Roads, he said.

"Hampton Roads? You'll never be in that league," he told them.

The meeting at which Mr. Meehan spoke was hastily called to discuss the Virginia Port Authority's claim that $6 million in state funds earmarked for Richmond might be put to better use on some other project at the little port, rather than the dock wall project.

The dock wall project - years in the making - has become a sacred cow to the Richmond port commissioners. Suggestions from Mr. Meehan and Stanley Payne, the Meehan vice president incharge of the Richmond operation, that other options should be considered for the money were met with outrage and defiance by the Richmond commissioners.

And ill will toward the Virginia Port Authority flourished at the Richmond

commission meeting. The state port authority had flatly rejected a Richmond request to make a presentation on the dock wall project to the Virginia Port Authority board. Richmond, naturally, took that as a slap in the face.

State port officials aren't altogether pleased with the Richmond executives, either.

"It's not their money; it's our money," commented an exasperated Bobby Bray, executive director of the Virginia Port Authority, during a brief interview.

"It (the dock wall situation) could be easily worked out by us together, instead of sitting around seeing who can hold their breath the longest," he said.

Businessmen are frustrated as well.

Mr. Payne has had enough of the battle. He has decided to leave the port.

Roy F. Hoffman, a retired admiral, has been named as Meehan executive vice president to replace him. Mr. Payne will stay at the port for a transition period.

Mr. Payne had been considered as a replacement for James McCarville, the executive director of the Port of Richmond who recently resigned. He said that the latest squabbling over the dock wall funds has convinced him that would be a mistake.