The port of Baltimore handled 10.1 million tons of general cargo — a new record — at its public terminals in 2016, a 5 percent increase from the previous year, officials announced Tuesday.
In its first six months of welcoming larger container ships transiting the expanded Panama Canal, the port saw a nearly 10 percent increase in container volume at its terminals, due in part to a busy December in which that traffic was up 23 percent from the same month last year, said James White, executive director of the Maryland Port Administration. The first of those larger container ships, the 1,095-foot Ever Lambent from Taiwan, called in Baltimore in July.
"Maryland's strategic investments in the Port of Baltimore have enabled the Port to directly benefit from the expanded Panama Canal by serving the new mega-ships," Gov. Larry Hogan said in a statement.
The port handled the equivalent of more than 538,000 20-foot container units last year, an increase of three percent from 2015.
Due to its location up the Chesapeake Bay and limited rail capacity, Baltimore's container traffic has long lagged behind its nearest competitor, Norfolk, Va., which outpaced it with more than four times as much container volume last year.
Maryland submitted a second application in December for federal funding to expand the Howard Street Tunnel under downtown Baltimore to make it tall enough for containers to be stacked two-high on freight trains. Officials say renovating the outdated tunnel is key to ensuring the port's continued growth.
The state and Ports America Chesapeake entered into a $1.8 billion, 50-year lease deal in 2009 for Seagirt Marine Terminal, in which the company agreed to pay for a 50-foot-deep berth and four super-sized cranes to load and unload the giant ships, in return for operating the facilty.
That deal is paying off, White said. With the giant cranes and deep berth, Baltimore is one of four ports on the East Coast that can handle such massive vessels.
"The bigger ships are delivering the freight we thought they would," he said.
Baltimore also has been the nation's top port for autos for the past five years. The public terminals saw a slight dip of just over 1 percent in that category last year, to about 568,000 vehicles. The vehicle volume last year at the port's private terminals were not available Tuesday.
Roll-on/roll-off cargo, which includes farm and construction equipment, was down nearly 8 percent, to about 700,000 tons, officials said. Port spokesman Richard Scher attributed the drop to the dollar's strength hurting sales of American agriculture, construction and mining equipment.
"The silver lining is that while we lost tonnage, our market share remained No. 1 in the U.S.," he said.
Baltimore's port saw paper shipments increase a 30 percent year-over-year to more than 519,000 tons. The port administration signed a 10-year contract extension with its top forest product customer, Finland-based UPM, in 2016. It also extended contracts with both of its cruise lines, Carnival Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean International.
The port was named the most efficient in the United States for the third straight year by the Journal of Commerce, with 71 container moves per hour per berth.
White credited the longshoremen, Ports America and all the various other contractors and companies at the port with the record cargo.
"The whole port community has been working together here to achieve these results," he said.