The operator of the Port of Baltimore’s container terminal plans to spend more than $166 million on upgrades as shipping rebounds from the coronavirus pandemic and the long-awaited Howard Street Tunnel project promises to potentially double the port’s container volume.
Ports America Chesapeake, the New Jersey-based firm that operates the state-owned Seagirt Marine Terminal under a long-term lease, is investing more than $110 million in upgrades to the Southeast Baltimore terminal and plans to add another $56 million in yard equipment to increase cargo capacity.
Four new massive container cranes and the construction of a second 50-foot berth will allow longshoremen to load and unload two large container ships at once, officials said. Ports America Chesapeake also will seek to address the truck congestion that has plagued the port as volumes have grown in recent years by reconfiguring truck gates and adding a new empty container repair depot.
Bayard Hogans, vice president of Ports America Chesapeake, said the company is investing in anticipation of future growth at the terminal, especially once CSX trains can carry containers stacked two-high through the heightened freight tunnel under downtown Baltimore.
After receiving a $125 million federal grant for the Howard Street Tunnel expansion, Maryland officials announced last year that they had successfully negotiated a deal with the railroad to fully fund and move forward with the $466 million project.
“We are committed to continued investment and expansion, utilizing advanced technologies and enhanced infrastructure to support that growth,” Gov. Larry Hogan said in a statement.
Scott Cowan, president of International Longshoremen’s Association Local 333, the Port of Baltimore’s largest dockworkers’ union, said cargo volumes have rebounded more than he expected since the beginning of the pandemic.
Ports America Chesapeake is “doing what they have to do” to prepare for even more containers to cross the piers, he said.
“They’re investing money and trying to make it better,” Cowan said. “That’s all the ILA can ask for.”
Truckers eagerly anticipate any investments, such as the planned 54 new rubber-tire gantry cranes, a new terminal layout and reconfigured main and Vail Street gates, that could help shorten the often long wait times at Seagirt, said Louis Campion, president of the Maryland Motor Truck Association.
Several truckers told The Baltimore Sun they waited two to three hours for a single container in recent days. Many are paid by the load and lose money while idling in line at the port.
“We are excited about the investments that Ports America Chesapeake is making to increase both capacity and efficiency as the Port positions itself for continued growth,” Campion said. “Our membership ... welcomes any improvements that will help to mitigate the prolonged and repetitive turn-time challenges that congestion at the Seagirt Marine Terminal has historically had on the trucking industry.”
Maryland Transportation Secretary Greg Slater said the port is setting the stage for Maryland’s economic recovery from the pandemic.
“Investments that are part of this collaboration have supported the Port’s critical role in keeping our supply chain open during the COVID-19 emergency,” Slater said in a statement.
Dredging operations to deepen the second Seagirt berth to 50 feet will begin soon, and the Maryland Port Administration is working with the Army Corps of Engineers to improve the loop channel, which will improve ship turnaround times, said William P. Doyle, the port administration’s executive director.
Doyle took over the helm of the state agency that oversees the Port of Baltimore from longtime former executive director James White, who stepped down a year ago after nearly two decades in charge.
“We are very excited to continue moving forward with Ports America Chesapeake to grow and expand the Seagirt Marine Terminal,” Doyle said in a statement. “We look forward to many more years of a great partnership.”
While cargo volumes at the port took a hit from the pandemic, they have rebounded since June, state officials say. The explosive expansion of e-commerce during the pandemic and the strength of the MidAtlantic market has buoyed container volumes, which increased more than 10% in October from the same month last year, officials said.
“As we continue the fight against COVID-19, the Port of Baltimore is leading the way in Maryland’s economic recovery,” Hogan said in his statement. “As a result of our partnership with Ports America Chesapeake, jobs have been created, business has increased, and the Port of Baltimore is one of the busiest ports in the nation.”