The Maryland Port Administration has told Atlantic Container Line -- one of the port's most important steamship lines -- that it cannot use the port of Baltimore's new high-tech Seagirt Marine Terminal, an ACL official who asked not to be identified said yesterday.
"We're none too pleased," said the steamship line official, who was informed of the MPA decision yesterday. "Certainly we are dismayed about the non-access to Seagirt."
The ACL official said that he suspects the MPA now wants to run Seagirt purely as a container facility and that the agency fears that ACL's mixed cargo base could hamper the efficiency of the terminal, which was designed for containers.
He said that his company has spent a considerable amount of time and money negotiating with the state over Seagirt only to be told ACL will not be permitted to become the terminal's fourth steamship line tenant.
The MPA refused to confirm that ACL will not be allowed to move its Baltimore operations from Dundalk Marine Terminal to the nearby Seagirt facility. A spokesman for the MPA cited a policy against discussing ongoing negotiations.
ACL and the MPA will try to reach agreement on a new lease at Dundalk, said the ACL official, who asked that his name not be used because of the sensitivity of the continued lease negotiations.
In refusing to permit ACL to go to Seagirt, the MPA would effectively bar a second big line -- Hapag-Lloyd -- from Seagirt. Hapag-Lloyd recently stopped making direct vessel calls to Baltimore and now serves Baltimore solely through space it charters on ACL's vessels, which call at the port once each week.
The ACL official said that capacity limitations at Seagirt were not the issue. He estimated that the combined annual volume of the three lines already using Seagirt would be about 80,000 containers, or about one-third of Seagirt's capacity. He said that would have left ample room for ACL and Hapag-Lloyd, which he estimated would have handled 25,000 to 30,000 containers a year.
Ironically, ACL was the prime candidate for Seagirt at a time when the state was searching to find a line willing to be the pioneer tenant. In June 1989, ACL officials announced they had reached a tentative agreement with the state on a Seagirt lease. In September of that year, ACL signed a letter of intent to become the first tenant.
ACL and the MPA never reached a final agreement. But ACL subsequently showed renewed interest. "We have been working for this about a year," said the ACL official.
He believes that the MPA wants to keep Seagirt as a pure container operation and that the signing of three other tenants has reduced the urgency of coming to terms with ACL. "The basic reason is that Seagirt is suddenly a container terminal and is no longer suited for ro-ro or cars," the ACL official said. Ro-ro is an industry term for cargo roll on/roll off -- cargo that is taken on or off via the vehicle ramp.
The ACL official disputed the idea that ACL's mixed cargo base would have caused operational problems at Seagirt. "I think they're doing the wrong thing," he said of the MPA.
Seagirt was designed to be a pure container-handling terminal. Its cranes, computerized gate and associated rail yard were set up for the rapid movement of the big, metal boxes the size of truck trailers. ACL operates unusual ships that, in addition to containers, handle logs, cars, boats, heavy equipment and other cargo that can be driven aboard the ship's huge stern ramp. (Containers, by contrast, are lifted on or off a ship by special high-speed cranes.)
The unusual nature of ACL's operations did not seem to be a problem two years ago, when the MPA was looking to sign the first lease that would allow the terminal to open for business. At that time, the state expressed a willingness to build a shed to accommodate ACL's needs at Seagirt. (Containers do not need to be protected from the weather, but some non-containerized cargos do.) There were also discussions of running a special rail spur to the ACL berth to handle the non-containerized cargo.