The Helen Delich Bentley Port of Baltimore had another banner year — great news for Baltimore County and the rest of the metropolitan region.
For the first time ever, the port clocked in 10 million-plus tons of cargo — a 5 percent increase over 2015. Moreover, the Journal of Commerce rated Baltimore's maritime facility the most productive in the United States.
Yet, there's alarm on the docks. A storm cloud lurks in the form of the new administration in Washington.
President Trump, during last year's campaign, promised to impose stiff tariffs on imported goods from countries like Mexico and China. He accused them of "dumping" cheap products on the U.S. market and taking jobs from American workers.
Should Trump set high tariffs, the Port of Baltimore could suffer mightily.
How might that affect residents in Owings Mills, Reisterstown and Glyndon?
Tariffs on imports mean higher prices for consumers. Think of all those "Made in China" or "Made in Mexico" labels in the Owings Mills Walmart — as well as in every other retail store in Northwest Baltimore County.
Tariffs mean fewer jobs for port workers and for companies that run port-related businesses. How many of the 13,000 port jobs or 122,000 jobs linked to Baltimore's maritime activities might be affected is unknown.
But tariffs would mean far less business at the port. Layoffs would ripple through the region's economy.
Other nations also would respond with their own tariffs on U.S. imports. This harms local companies that sell products or material abroad. It could even price them out of the market, resulting in bankruptcies.
Here are two examples. The U.S. solar industry pressed President Obama to impose a 239 percent tariff on imported Chinese solar panels that were far cheaper than similar American-made photovoltaic units.
Obama acted to protect U.S. jobs — but the tariff boomeranged.
It turns out three-quarters of the equipment needed to assemble solar panels in China was manufactured in the U.S., especially PV polysilicon that generates power from the sun.
Once Obama imposed that stiff tax on Chinese solar panels, Beijing responded, slapping a 57 percent tax on PV polysilicon imports from the U.S. As a result, one of this nation's major PV polysilicon producers went out of business.
Here's another example. In 2008, Obama placed a tariff on foreign tires to save 1,200 American manufacturing jobs. The tariff did cut tire imports dramatically. Sales of foreign tires like Michelin and Yokohama fell as their prices rose. But so did the prices for American-made tires.
The bottom line: Consumers paid $1.1 billion more for tires in 2011. And as sales for foreign tires plunged, retail tire shops laid off 3,700 workers. The tax proved an abysmal failure.
Tariffs don't work. Still, if they are imposed by the new administration, port-related businesses could see a sharp downturn.
This comes at an inopportune time for Baltimore County, which is on the cusp of major job gains tied to the port.
At the former Bethlehem Steel plant in Sparrows Point, work is moving ahead on redeveloping this prime 3,100-acre site for port-related businesses. Within a decade, this could lead to 17,000 jobs at Tradepoint Atlantic, generating $26 million a year in new property tax revenue for the county and $25 million in new income tax revenue for local governments.
Yet, it could turn out to be a cruel illusion if high tariffs and international trade wars erupt.
That's one reason port officials are in high anxiety waiting to see what the new president decides to do. His actions will affect all of us.