If state officials want to take a giant step toward restoring the Port of Baltimore to its previous popularity with steamship lines, they should give top priority to improving the safety and reliability of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal. The vast potential of this waterway shortcut is being lost.
The C&D; can save a vessel over 100 miles and numerous hours of travel time. For ships bound for New York, it saves them from making the long, 150-mile trip back down the Chesapeake Bay, the turn out to the Atlantic and then another turn to head north toward New York. Instead, vessels can leave Baltimore and head east for the C&D.; That is important with today's tight port schedules and the soaring operating costs that run as high as $50,000 a day for a large containership.
Yet relatively few ships take advantage of this shortcut. Port officials were shocked to learn last fall that 41 percent of vessels coming from the south that can use the C&D; just don't. Why? Fear of the narrow, shallow confines of the upper bay channel, the sharp turns, inadequate navigation signals and the danger of running aground or colliding with other vessels in the constricted area.
That's a disappointment given the $30 million spent in past years deepening the C&D; and its link to Baltimore, the Brewerton Channel. But the C&D; remains Baltimore's best sales weapon in the fight with Hampton Roads for maritime business.
A long-term remedy is being studied by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers but will not be unveiled until 1995. Until then, state officials have drawn up a list of immediate steps to encourage C&D; traffic. Given the large number of vessels that avoid the C&D;, even a modest gain could boost Baltimore's maritime fortunes.
Some of the moves are simple. For instance, adding an emergency turnaround area near the C&D; entrance and tripling the clearance time for use of the canal allays fears of ship captains of a mishap as they approach the C&D.; Increasing the frequency of channel buoys is a common-sense approach. So is smoothing out sharp canal turns and widening the Brewerton Channel to 600 feet.
These improvements should reduce the risk associated with the C&D.; With savvy marketing efforts, more steamship lines may take a look at the Baltimore shortcut. It could give this port a crucial lift. Baltimore is, after all, a transportation gateway to the populous and affluent Baltimore-Washington region, with excellent rail and truck connections to the heartlands of the Midwest. If shipping lines can be assured of a safe shortcut that lops off valuable time and overhead from the expense side of the ledge, Baltimore's popularity could be revived. A safer, more reliable C&D; Canal could hold the key.