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Maryland Gov. Hogan visits Port of Baltimore to see dredging operation

Dredging is underway at the Port of Baltimore's Seagirt Marine Terminal to accommodate two ultra-large ships simultaneously.
Dredging is underway at the Port of Baltimore's Seagirt Marine Terminal to accommodate two ultra-large ships simultaneously. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan on Wednesday boarded a dredging vessel scooping sediment from the harbor floor, deepening a dockside berth to 50 feet to allow two massive container ships to tie up at the Port of Baltimore at once.

The ongoing dredging project, paid for by about $10 million in state money, is among several upgrades planned for Seagirt Marine Terminal in Southeast Baltimore in advance of the long-awaited expansion of the Howard Street Tunnel, which will dramatically increase the port’s cargo capacity.

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“I think of this as jobs and our economy growing, and helping us with our economic recovery,” the governor said. “But it’s just kind of neat to see what these folks are doing, working hard every day.”

The Howard Street Tunnel expansion, which could begin construction as soon as this summer, will allow CSX’s freight trains to pass through the tunnel and under 22 bridges between Baltimore and Philadelphia carrying shipping containers stacked two-high.

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That will remove a freight bottleneck in CSX’s network and significantly boost the Port of Baltimore’s already-booming shipping container traffic. Cargo volumes, which have exploded since the opening of the expanded Panama Canal in 2016, dipped at the beginning of the pandemic before rebounding, largely due to the spike in e-commerce and Maryland’s growing number of distribution centers.

Dredging is underway at the Port of Baltimore's Seagirt Marine Terminal to deepen a second container berth to 50 feet, which accommodate two ultra-large ships simultaneously.
Dredging is underway at the Port of Baltimore's Seagirt Marine Terminal to deepen a second container berth to 50 feet, which accommodate two ultra-large ships simultaneously. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

William P. Doyle, executive director of the Maryland Port Administration, pointed over his shoulder to the GUSTAV MAERSK, a hulking container ship being unloaded at Seagirt docks in the pouring rain. He said the second 50-foot berth, a set of larger cranes arriving later this year and the expanded tunnel will combine to bring more of those ships — and exponentially more cargo — to Baltimore.

“That ship you see right there ... would not fit through the Panama Canal before 2016.” Doyle said. “The Panama Canal now allows three times the size of the vessels to come through the Panama Canal and into Baltimore. And what you need is 50 feet of berth, 50 feet of depth, to unload” them.

Laying the groundwork for the increased cargo, Ports America Chesapeake, the private operator that leases Seagirt Marine Terminal under a long-term deal with the state, is investing more than $160 million in terminal upgrades and yard equipment.

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Four massive container cranes, which are set to arrive in August, costing a combined $55 million, will allow longshoremen to unload containers from the ships at the deep berths.

Bayard Hogans, vice president of Ports America Chesapeake, said the company has purchased 15 new gantry cranes, which longshoremen use to move shipping containers around on the docks and to and from trucks and trains.

“It’s really about the future,” he said. “It’s about the Howard Street Tunnel. The investment Ports America Chesapeake is making with the $160 million and the new cranes — this really solidifies the future of the Port of Baltimore.”

The private operator will seek to address the truck congestion that has plagued the port amid growing cargo volumes by reconfiguring truck gates and adding a new empty container repair depot. The tunnel expansion is expected to alleviate some of the dock congestion by shifting more cargo to rail.

The dredging is the state’s latest investment in the port’s cargo capacity.

In the first expansion of the port in three decades, Maryland spent $55 million in 2017 to buy Point Breeze Business Center next to Seagirt, with plans to expand the terminal’s footprint to 356 acres and provide space to accommodate more container traffic.

The state Board of Public Works recently authorized $34 million in state funding for the reconstruction of the nearby Dundalk Marine Terminal 3, which will upgrade the dock and provide more space for roll-on/roll-off cargo.

Scott Cowan, president of the International Longshoremen’s Association Local 333, the port’s largest dockworkers’ union, called the dredging of the shipping channels and the 50-foot deep berths “a lifeline to the port.”

“If that’s not done, we can’t get the bigger ships in here and get more cargo,” Cowan said.

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