While cargo volume at Baltimore's public marine terminals fell slightly in the past fiscal year, key commodities at the port are rebounding after the recession, state officials reported Wednesday.
Two cargo categories saw steep declines in the fiscal year that ended in June — farm and construction equipment dropped 31 percent and paper products fell 27 percent. Overall, the port handled 9.1 million tons of cargo in the past fiscal year compared with 9.2 million tons the year earlier.
But other business saw an uptick. Automobile cargo rose 26 percent compared with the year-earlier period, while pulp cargo used to make facial tissues, paper towels and napkins was up 13 percent. Container business rose 2 percent compared with fiscal 2009, according to the port.
"We encountered an extremely challenging economy, one that has not had this downward effect on our commodities going back several decades," said Richard Scher, a spokesman for the port of Baltimore. "While we are not all the way back to where we were pre-recession, we are seeing signs that we are beginning to make that turn back."
Increased consumer demand for autos and new business that offset the loss of other auto business helped to boost tonnage, Scher said.
"Automobiles are a good barometer when it comes to the economy," he said. "People will buy cars when they feel confident in their own lives. It's certainly a good sign that our auto numbers are up."
In January, a new contract took effect in which BMW will ship 50,000 vehicles through the port each year for the next five years. The port also won new business from Ford Motor Co., which over the summer began shipping Ford Fiestas here from Mexico, adding 17,000 vehicles a year. And Ford has begun using the port as its main point of entry for "transit connect" vans, a service vehicle version of a minivan.
The new business offset the loss in May of Hyundai and Kia business, about 40,000 vehicles per year, which moved to Philadelphia's port.
Last year, the state approved an agreement with Ports America to operate Seagirt Marine Terminal and build a 50-foot-deep berth. The port also extended contracts with two major international container companies in 2008 — MSC Mediterranean Shipping Co. for six years and Evergreen Marine Corp. for a decade.
Gov. Martin O'Malley said in a statement that "2009 was a very tough year for the maritime industry, but the port of Baltimore has been able to maintain a solid position," partly because of the long-term contracts.
In the first six months of the year, general cargo tonnage rose 8 percent compared with the first half of 2009, port officials said. That includes containers, automobiles, forest products, farm and construction equipment and steel.
The port maintained its market share for most of the key commodities in 2009 despite an overall decline in tonnage then. Baltimore's port ranked No. 1 in the U.S. for handling imported roll on/roll off cargo — mainly farm and construction equipment — as well as for handling imported forest products, imported sugar and imported gypsum.
The port had the second-largest market share in the nation for exporting autos and importing iron ore. And the port's cruise business is growing, with the 2010 cruise season expected to set a record with 91 home port sailings and about 190,000 passengers. The port has 112 home port cruises scheduled for 2011.