Virginia's ports have been undergoing a quiet revolution that has made them the nation'sleader in waterborne foreign commerce in three out of the last four years.

In fact, between 1982 and 1992, tonnages at the state's ports have increased by 265 percent.Three of Virginia's ports located near Chesapeake Bay, Norfolk, Newport News and Portsmouth, are run by the Virginia Port Authority (VPA).

In 1991, Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder announced a $400 million expansion of Norfolk International Terminals. Under the plan, the terminal - which already was Virginia's largest intermodal cargo marine terminal - will more than double its present size in a four-stage expansion. The redevelopment will add 300 acres and 4,300 feet of vessel berthing space to the existing facilities.

In announcing the expansion, Gov. Wilder said that 116,000 jobs and $2.4 billion in wages were generated by the three ports in 1990.

Phase One of the project - acquisition of 283 acres of property situated between Norfolk International Terminals and the Norfolk Naval Base - has been completed.

Phase Two, estimated to cost $90.5 million, will see the construction of a 1,508-foot wharf with 56 acres of backup area and the acquisition of three cranes and associated yard operating equipment.

Originally scheduled for completion by the end of next year, Phase Two is now targeted for completion in 1995-1996.

Phases Three and Four provide for the construction of an additional 2,800 feet of wharf and the purchase of three more cranes. Under the original timetable announced in 1991, the final two phases of the expansion were scheduled to begin by 1998 and to be completed by 2004.

In 1992, both the new Monitor-Merrimac Memorial Bridge-Tunnel, which is part of Interstate 664, and Interstate I-295 were opened. By completing a 55-mile interstate beltway around Hampton Roads, the new I-664 established a direct link between the three Virginia Port Authority ports, expediting the flow of intermodal truck/waterborne cargo.

In addition, on Sept. 28, the VPA broke ground for a new 100,000 square foot, $3.75 million multipurpose warehouse at the Newport News Marine Terminal. Thanks to the new highway links, the terminal will have a direct connection with the city of South Hampton Roads, Richmond and points north and west.

At the Virginia Inland Port in Front Royal - which serves as a truck and rail transfer facility - the VPA last year spent $1.4 million to pave an additional 30 acres.

The major rail link with Virginia's southern ports is the Norfolk Southern.

Thomas L. Finkbiner, Norfolk Southern's vice president-intermodal, said that for years the line ran one intermodal train a day, six days a week, to the VPA ports.

"Then last year we began running two trains a day and we also started a second train four days a week and then five days a week. And by the end of this year, we're going to have three trains a day. So obviously, the first thing we've done is increase our service," said Mr. Finkbiner.

He said the line first served Norfolk, Columbus, Ohio and Chicago. But subsequent trains are serving Peoria, Chicago, Detroit, Columbus, Cleveland., Kansas City, St. Louis, Louisville and Cincinnati.

Mr. Finkbiner added that the port has installed 10,000 feet of additional track to accommodate the line. "The port also has some of the most modern intermodal cranes in the country," he said.

Mr. Finkbiner said that the Norfolk Southern launched a third generation of intermodal stack car service at the port in 1991. The result of a $50 million program undertaken by the line, the first stack cars operated between Norfolk and Chicago.

To accommodate the added height, Norfolk Southern had to elevate bridges, lower tracks, enlarge one tunnel and remove another.

The Port of Richmond - which operates independently of the Virginia Port Authority - handled 473,265 tons of cargo during fiscal 1992-1993. Of this total, 335,257 tons were containerized.

An important port for containerized South American tobacco imports, Richmond saw 112 vessels call at the port in its last fiscal year.

Joan B. Studds, principal administrative analyst with the Port of Richmond, says that despite the worldwide recession, cargo tonnages at the port have risen, although at a reduced rate.

"We were up 2 percent over last year at the end of our fiscal year which ended June 30," said Ms. Studds.

She added that the global economics have curtailed the "huge" increases that the port experienced in the past.

Ms. Studds noted that since last October, Pan American Independent Line has transshipped 27,787 tons of containerized South American tobacco destined for importers in Central Virginia by barge to Richmond from Newport News.

In 1991, the Port of Richmond hired the consulting firm of Vickerman- Zachery-Miller to create a new Master Development Plan.

The firm's first task was to conduct a study that assessed Richmond's competitive market and forecast cargo levels through the year 2010.

The $8.8 million Master Development Plan that emerged from the study was geared primarily toward improving access at the port for motor carriers.

The plan, approved by the Port of Richmond Commission last January, is being funded by the Virginia Commonwealth Port Fund, Capital Improvement Funds from the city of Richmond and working capital and future revenues of the port.

Among the major elements of the plan:

* Extending the existing wharf by 315 feet to provide for improved container handling operations and additional berthing space.

* Regrading and consolidating container storage areas, and constructing a new maintenance garage away from the container area to improve traffic flow.

* Improving gate entrance facilities and truck processing traffic flow.

To date, Richmond's Planning Commission and Urban Design Committee have reviewed and approved the project and contracts are expected to be awarded by the end of the year. The target date for completion of the entire project is the summer of 1995.