The port of Baltimore rebounded robustly in 2010 from the recession-bound previous year and came close to pre-downturn levels, according to figures the state is to release Thursday.
The Maryland Port Administration's year-end recap shows that almost 33 million tons of foreign cargo moved through the port's public and private terminals in 2010, a 47 percent increase from the previous year. The agency said the dollar value of that cargo reached $41.5 billion, a 37 percent increase.
From 2004 through 2008, the port handled more than 30 million tons of cargo each year, setting a record of 33 million tons just before the bottom fell out of the economy in late 2008. Tonnage fell by a third, to 22 million tons, in 2009 — the port's lowest total this century.
The downturn proved short-lived, however, as the port handled 32.8 million tons in 2010, its second-best year. And 2011 is off to a healthy start, said James J. White, executive director of the port administration.
"We're on track to have a very good year," he said in an interview Wednesday.
Bulk cargoes such as coal, iron ore, sugar, salt and gypsum led the way as the port reinforced its strong position in handling those commodities. Tonnage in bulk trade, which moves mostly through privately owned terminals, increased 61 percent.
The export market was especially strong, as the port handled 18 million tons of goods bound for other countries, a 72 percent increase. Imports increased 26 percent, to 15 million tons.
Maryland's publicly owned terminals posted increases but lagged behind their privately owned counterparts. The amount of non-bulk, general cargo handled by such marine terminals as Dundalk, Seagirt, North and South Locust Point and Masonville increased 11 percent, to 8.1 million tons.
Container shipping, a category in which Baltimore has struggled over the years, increased 17 percent at the state-owned marine terminals. White said the port, which has ranked about 14th or 15th among the 360 U.S. ports in moving containers, had its best summer ever in that category. He said June, July and August are especially significant because that is when manufacturers tend to ship goods for the holiday shopping season.
Baltimore is poised to make significant gains in container cargo in the next several years because of its public-private partnership with Ports America Chesapeake, under which the company will operate the Seagirt Marine Terminal, White said. As part of that pact, the company will build a 50-foot-deep berth and add four large cargo cranes to handle the larger ships expected in Baltimore after a widening of the Panama Canal is completed in 2014.
The 2010 figures show that roll-on, roll-off — or ro/ro — cargo, such as locomotives or agricultural and construction equipment, increased by just 4 percent. But White said that number is misleading.
Ro/ro cargo led the decline as the economy slowed in 2009 and in the first half of 2010, but shipments started coming back strongly in mid-2010 and continued to post strong gains in the first quarter of this year, according to the port chief.
"Emerging markets in Brazil and Africa are really pumping up our ro/ro numbers," White said.
Baltimore holds a commanding position as the nation's No. 1 ro/ro port, with a greater market share than its next three competitors combined, White said.
According to the state, Baltimore holds the No. 1 position in imported forest products, sugar and gypsum as well as ro/ro cargo. Baltimore ranks 12th in dollar value of cargo and fifteenth in tonnage among U.S. ports.
The final 2010 figures also confirm that Baltimore's port continues to show strong growth in its cruise business. The port administration said a record 210,549 people sailed on 90 cruises from the port last year. White said the port expects to exceed that passenger total with 112 cruises this year.
White said the port's numbers are up this year for each of its targeted growth areas: ro/ro, autos, containers, forest products and cruises. He said he likes the prospects for 2011.
"I think for the port as a whole it will be a record-breaker, with all the iron ore that's coming in and all the coal that's going out," he said. "We're going to need a strong finish."