The waterway that gets cargo ships in and out of the Port of Virginia’s Hampton Roads terminals can now handle traffic in both directions.

The $450 million channel widening is the latest in a $1.4 billion slate of improvement projects meant to keep the port growing.

The Thimble Shoals channel is a cargo ship highway that moved a record number of shipping containers through the Port of Virginia in recent years with only one-way traffic.

Port spokesman Joe Harris said if a ship was already in the channel, other cargo ships would have to sit offshore or in the Chesapeake Bay and wait for the Coast Guard to give them the all-clear to proceed, often leaving them sitting idle for four hours at a time.

“That’s not terribly efficient,” Harris told WHRO in January.

But the widening means the channel will allow large cargo vessels enough room to safely glide past each other coming in and out of Hampton Roads Harbor.

“That two way traffic is going to be critical, and there’s no other port on the East Coast that has that,” Harris said.

“To have ships that can pass is really efficient because it means we can keep our berths moving. We don’t have to plan for ‘Oh, we’re going to be down for four hours while this passes.’”

The change should reduce the amount of time ships sit in berths at the port by around 15%. The quicker shipping companies can get cargo in and out of Port of Virginia facilities, the more attractive the port will be for additional business.

The widening of the channel, which has been underway since 2019, is one of several improvement projects aimed at keeping the port’s cargo numbers trending upward.

Earlier improvements helped the port capitalize on shipping backups at other U.S. ports and experience record growth during the pandemic.

The Coast Guard issued its new business rules memo for the channel – the official implementation of two-way traffic for the wider waterway – on Friday.

In addition to making the channel wider, the port is also dredging to make it deeper to accommodate even larger boats. Once that’s finished late next year, the channel will be 55 feet deep in Norfolk Harbor and 59 feet deep where the channel approaches the ocean.

The Thimble Shoals channel will then be both the deepest and widest shipping channel on the East Coast, which port officials hope will attract even more business to the already-bustling port.