Cargo volume at the port of Baltimore grew 15 percent last year, the largest increase of any major U.S. port, state officials announced Monday.
The port's public and private terminals moved 37.8 million tons of goods from cars to coal in 2011. It all was valued at more than $51.4 billion, a 24 percent increase over 2010.
"The port is leading the pack," said James White, executive director of the Maryland Port Administration.
Longshoremen at the six public terminals managed by the administration set volume records in processing autos, wood pulp and containers. The export coal volume at the port's private terminals surged 38.5 percent to 19.2 million tons in 2011. Those facilities also exported 20.4 million tons of other cargo, a 39 percent increase.
"The port has been able to endure tough economic times and demonstrate levels of success even greater than other ports thanks to long-term contracts with major shipping companies, unique job-creating business partnerships, and shrewd infrastructure investments," Gov. Martin O'Malley said in a statement.
Last year for the first time, Baltimore was ranked No. 1 in the nation in handling cars, a goal set in 1996 "that took us some time to get there, but we did it," White said. "We processed 551,000 autos."
In 2005, Mercedes-Benz signed a 20-year lease with the Maryland Port Administration for its waterfront vehicle-processing center. Baltimore is Mercedes' busiest U.S. port, with 125,000 vehicles imported annually. In 2010, BMW signed a five-year agreement to ship 50,000 cars through Baltimore.
In December, one of the world's largest container companies chose Baltimore over other East Coast cities as its first U.S. stop for direct shipping from Northern Europe after a long courtship by Maryland officials and private business leaders. The first ship from the Hapag-Lloyd AG fleet arrived in February, a connection that is expected to increase the port's container traffic by roughly 10 percent.
"It's all about making contacts and following through, building trust and a relationship," White said.
In 2011, Baltimore was ranked 11th among 360 U.S. ports for dollar value of cargo and 12th for tonnage, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics. Businesses at the port are responsible for 14,630 jobs, $3 billion in wages and $300 million in state and local taxes, state officials said.
White said he hopes to build on the auto and other roll-on/roll-off businesses and expects to pick up more container traffic after the expanded Panama Canal opens in 2014. The four super-sized cranes that will move cargo from the larger post-Panamax ships have left China and will be assembled at Seagirt Marine Terminal this summer.
He acknowledged that other ports will try to pry business away from here, but added that with the help of the International Longshoremen's Association and the state's business and political leaders, Baltimore will prevail.
"I don't look at other ports and wonder how we can keep them from taking away our business," White said. "I look at our business and ask myself how we can do better so they don't want to leave."