Two of the world's dominant shipping lines tapped the port of Baltimore as a finalist yesterday in their search for a place to build one of the largest cargo terminals in the country.
Maersk Inc. and Sea-Land Service Inc. also will consider New York and Halifax, Nova Scotia, as sites for a new base of operations.
If placed in Baltimore, the terminal could triple the amount of container cargo shipped through the port and add a corresponding boost to Maryland's economy. State officials refused to discuss the deal's cost, expected to run well into the millions of tax dollars.
Maryland Port Administration officials were thrilled yesterday, not only because of the potential impact on Baltimore's shipping trade, but because Norfolk, Va., the city's maritime nemesis, was eliminated from the companies' consideration.
Some hailed yesterday's news as nothing less than a potential rebirth of Baltimore's container shipping trade -- a deal that could turn a struggling, secondary port back into one of the East Coast's major shipping hubs.
"In my 50 years around the waterfront, I think this might be the most exciting thing that has come to the port of Baltimore," said former Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, now a maritime consultant. "This will really be a tremendous boost to the whole state of Maryland, if we can swing it."
The two companies had planned to pick a site for their operation early next year, but said yesterday that they might spread their business among the three finalists.
Tommy Thomsen, president of Maersk Inc., said a decision to come to Baltimore could hinge on whether the companies can negotiate favorable labor rates with the area's longshoremen and pilots. "A significant outstanding issue will be discussions with labor," he said.
But, he added, "We were positively surprised and pleased with the approach of the Maryland Port Administration, and we look to Baltimore as a serious alternative to New York."
Won't be cheap
Port administration officials refused to discuss the deal in detail because negotiations are continuing. But officials make little secret that a Maersk/Sea-Land terminal won't come cheap -- that Baltimore would have to promise millions of dollars in improvements to the city's piers and waterways to win the business.
Before his departure last summer, Tay Yoshitani, the port administration's executive director, estimated the cost at $200 million, but said this week that the offer has likely changed several times since then.
James White, the acting executive director, would not say how much the proposed improvements would cost, but was quick to defend them. "You're talking about really, significantly growing the port, and the impact of that will be felt all over the state," he said.
Bentley, who has been involved in most negotiations with the companies, described the deal's price tag only as "big bucks." "If we can spend the kind of money we spent on a football stadium, by God we can spend it on this," she said.
The two shipping lines have asked for a terminal leased and dedicated entirely to them, and the port administration has offered space at the Dundalk Marine Terminal. The facility would need to be expanded and the draft at its piers dredged about eight feet to a 50-foot depth.
The companies also have asked for as many as 16 modern gantry cranes, which typically cost $1.5 million or more apiece. The Dundalk terminal is outdated by most modern standards, and would likely have to be renovated to allow more automation and more efficient container-moving capacity.
The facility, which would likely be leased for as many as 25 years, would need the annual capacity to move as many as 750,000 cargo containers -- the truck-size boxes used to transport most finished goods. All of Baltimore's current
container lines ship less than 300,000 containers a year.
The trend in Baltimore's container cargo business has been for old shipping lines to leave the city, not for new ones to arrive. That point surfaced even as the Maersk/Sea-Land announcement was made, with word that China Ocean Shipping Company, one of the port's largest customers, is moving its Far East service out of Baltimore to Norfolk early next year.
A trip up the Chesapeake Bay to Baltimore can cost a ship $40,000 or more in pilot's fees, fuel costs and lost time, a geographic imperative that has driven much of the city's cargo down the bay to Norfolk and its surrounding cities, known collectively as Hampton Roads. Maersk, a division of Denmark's A. P. Moller Group, left Baltimore for Hampton Roads two years ago, calling the port too inconvenient and expensive.
Some analysts say Baltimore's geography is such that only a sizable incentive package from the government could make the trip worthwhile for the two shipping lines.
"Will you make any money on this deal? I don't know," said Kevin Horn, a consultant for Louis Berger International, a Northern Virginia maritime consulting firm. "But Baltimore is hungry -- and so they're cheap."
Maersk and Sea-Land, which share vessels and operate joint shipping services in most major ports in the world, have searched since May for a place to consolidate East Coast operations. Much of their business goes to New York, where their 25-year, fixed-price lease is soon to expire.
Rather than send ships into several cities, as most steamship lines do, Maersk and Sea-Land are looking to build a hub terminal that could handle all of the lines' cargo in one stop, shipped on huge next-generation container vessels that will require depths as deep as 50 feet.
Chuck Raymond, a Sea-Land senior vice president, said one of Baltimore's advantages is that it can quickly offer the shipping lines adequate depth. Baltimore's channels already are 50 feet deep, and dredging at the piers could be accomplished in about a year.
New York too shallow
Channel depth is a primary reason the companies might abandon New York harbor despite its location within the nation's largest consumer market. Channels into the terminals in Elizabeth, N.J., are as shallow as 40 feet and down to bedrock in some places, requiring about $625 million in dredging.
Halifax harbor offers a natural 60-foot depth, but is far from the key East Coast markets -- including New York -- that the shipping companies want to serve.
The presumed early front-runner was Hampton Roads. Its harbors are deep, its facilities are modern and it is close to the open ocean.
But the Virginia Port Authority has never wanted to be a BTC "landlord port" that leases space to others -- it typically owns and operates terminals itself. And its Norfolk International Terminals are served by just one railroad: Norfolk Southern. Baltimore will soon be served by both Norfolk Southern and its primary rival, CSX -- the Richmond, Va.-based railroad that is also the parent company of Sea-Land.
Also eliminated from consideration yesterday was Quonset Point, R.I., where developers had proposed building a cargo terminal from scratch. Because Baltimore proposes to use the existing Dundalk Marine Terminal for the business, its proposed construction costs were cheaper than any of the other bidders, company officials said.
Ports in Philadelphia and Boston had been rejected earlier, largely because they lacked adequate space.
Pub Date: 12/11/98