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Biden to spotlight a still recovering Port of Baltimore as example of infrastructure progress

The Port of Baltimore that President Joe Biden plans to visit Wednesday to showcase his port infrastructure initiatives remains a small player in the nation’s supply chain that still is recovering from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

Global trade sputtered in early 2020 as COVID-19 spread rapidly around the world and the effects of the pandemic continue to ripple through supply chain, contributing to congestion at West Coast ports that some worry could lead to a lean holiday season.

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But Baltimore’s port, dwarfed in size by its West Coast peers and ill-positioned geographically relative to Asia, still hasn’t quite gotten back to pre-pandemic cargo volumes. It’s also avoided the problems plaguing those significantly larger and busier ports in Los Angeles and elsewhere.

As a result, port officials hope Baltimore’s role in the American supply chain is poised to grow, with the help of millions of dollars in investments in cranes, dredging, ship berths and a critical project to expand the 126-year-old Howard Street Tunnel to move more cargo by rail away from the port more efficiently.

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Such projects often rely on the kind of federal investment that Biden is visiting the port to tout. The president will tour the port and give remarks Wednesday afternoon to highlight the $17 billion bound for ports in the recently passed infrastructure legislation, which he hopes will bolster the nation’s beleaguered marine terminals and stabilize supply chains in the years to come.

Biden administration officials said they chose Baltimore partly because of the September arrival of four new container cranes purchased by Ports America Chesapeake, which runs the state-owned Seagirt Marine Terminal under a 50-year lease.

The new cranes, some of the tallest in the world, are the latest step toward doubling the port’s container capacity once the aging Howard Street Tunnel under downtown Baltimore is expanded to allow freight trains to carry shipping containers stacked two-high. That $466 million project will be paid for by a mix of funds from the federal government as well as Maryland, Pennsylvania and CSX.

“Baltimore is an illustrative example in the sense that the container terminal there is a public-private partnership, and the long-term private sector operator of that container terminal is making a very large investment in additional container cranes,” a senior administration official said during a briefing in advance of Biden’s visit. “So it’s an example of the kind of investments that are needed from both the private and the public sector side.”

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The infrastructure package, approved by the House late Friday, incentivizes the private sector “to make these kind of long-term investments,” the official said.

The bill provides $8 billion over five years to the INFRA, or Infrastructure for Rebuilding America, competitive grant program to assist highway and freight projects, including those at ports. It also contains $2.25 billion for the Port Infrastructure Development Program. That funding, according to Sen. Ben Cardin’s office, will help support dredging and capacity improvements at the Port of Baltimore.

Cardin pushed for the funding as chairman of a transportation and infrastructure subcommittee. The Maryland Democrat has called the infrastructure package “a once-in-a-generation-opportunity” for needed improvements.

The Biden administration said Tuesday it is taking steps to not only get more money to ports, but to allow them to use the funds more flexibly. Ports, it said, will be allowed to use cost savings from prior projects for new initiatives addressing supply chain challenges. It cited an upcoming project in Savannah, Georgia, in which $8 million is being reallocated to free up dock space.

In 2020, Baltimore was the nation’s 12th biggest container port, accounting for 1.8% of such imports, according to trade publication Logistics management. By comparison, the California port complex in Los Angeles and Long Beach handled for 31.8% of imports by container and Newark, New Jersey, did about 15.7%.

“The Port of Baltimore isn’t the Port of LA or Long Beach,” said Tinglong Dai, a professor of operations management and business analytics at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School. “Geographically, it’s very different.”

Many of the goods arriving in those West Coast major ports come from Asia, often carried by ships so massive they could not pass through the Panama Canal into the Atlantic. That’s likely a reason Baltimore isn’t seeing a large amount of spillover from port congestion elsewhere, Dai said.

In addition, most of the containers unloaded in Los Angeles and Long Beach carry consumer goods, for which there is high demand and lots of manufacturing. Baltimore is less of a container port than a port for automobiles, but microchip shortages have slowed vehicle production, Dai said.

In September, about 59,000 tons of automobiles passed through Port of Baltimore, according to Maryland Port Administration data. In September 2020, it was 93,000.

“We are not immune from the microchip shortage that is starting to impact our automobile volumes both the export and import sides,” said Maryland Port Administration executive director William P. Doyle in a statement. “We are hopeful that this will be a short term problem.”

On the container side through September this year, Baltimore’s Seagirt has handled close to 780,000 so-called TEUs, a standard unit of measure for the truck-sized containers, which often come in 40- and 20-foot lengths. That’s up significantly from the fewer than 500,000 TEUs that passed through the port in the same period last year, but still down from the 818,000 TEUs the port handled between January and September of 2019, according to Maryland Port Administration data.

“From LA, they are talking about a volume increase of about 20% compared to last year, and also above pre-pandemic levels,” Dai said. “Whereas in Baltimore, we’re still recovering from the pandemic.”

The return to near pre-pandemic volume hasn’t come without complications in Baltimore. In February, truckers stood outside the terminal with handmade signs to protest long wait times to load up goods.

Armand Patella, executive vice president of the Maryland Motor Truck Association, said matters have improved since then.

“[There was] a great effort to maintain the staffing levels to what they need to be to turn the trucks generally within a two-hour timeframe from start to finish,” Patella said.

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Though there were some staffing challenges during the height of the pandemic — and some coronavirus cases among dockworkers — the International Longshoremen’s Association hasn’t struggled with outbreaks recently, and is attracting new recruits for open positions, said Scott Cowan, president of ILA Local 333.

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The port also made adjustments to ease congestion for drivers waiting to haul cargo, officials said. In the coming week, a new gate will offer truckers a new entry point to Seagirt, Doyle said. And Ports America Chesapeake also plans to install scales that can weigh trucks while they’re in motion, Doyle said.

It’s part of a series of terminal upgrades set for the months and years ahead — $166 million worth. Next year, 15 more gantry cranes — used to move shipping containers between trucks and stacks — will arrive at Seagirt. Ports America also plans to move a container repair facility further from the docks, creating more space for incoming cargo, Doyle said.

The Port of Baltimore’s seemingly bright future, together with its lack of current congestion, may make it an ideal backdrop Thursday for Biden, Dai said. That and its close proximity to the White House.

“This is more of a happy story. The Port of Baltimore is doing well,” he said.

Port officials are betting that container cargo levels will continue to grow, in part because of the terminal investments on the horizon. In recent months, the port has attracted two new container services, which translates to 21 new ships a year, which officials attributed to congestion issues elsewhere.

But the investment with possibly the biggest payoff remains three years off. Work on the long-awaited Howard Street Tunnel project, heightening clearances in the tunnel and beneath three Baltimore bridges is likely to start this year and may not finish until 2024.

“Those changes will not play a very big role for the short term, for the pandemic crisis we are seeing in this nation,” Dai said. “And so, I think this is more for long-term investments. And this is in anticipation of future growth in terms of import/export volumes.”

In the meantime, Biden’s Veteran’s Day visit — his second to Baltimore in less than a month — is something for port workers to cheer about, Cowan said. It comes after the port welcomed Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who also was pushing the infrastructure package, in July.

“It’s fantastic. It gives more PR to the Port of Baltimore, which is already a great port,” Cowan said. “We’re getting the spotlight.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Jeff Barker contributed to this article.

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