Late in 1998, China Ocean Shipping Co. decided to follow many of the world's other major shipping lines out of Baltimore. It canceled the Baltimore stop on its service to the Far East, choosing instead the more accessible piers in Norfolk, Va. One of the port's biggest customers went where so many others went years ago.
Yet as 1999 unfolds, the Maryland Port Administration is more optimistic about the city's maritime future than at any time in decades.
This year it will open a new terminal for shipping automobiles -- one cargo with which Baltimore has shown it can succeed. It will get a new railroad and a new executive director.
And early this year, the port will learn whether it has won a deal that would more than atone for its last 20 years of headaches.
Two of the world's largest shipping lines -- Maersk Inc. and Sea-Land Service Inc. -- picked Baltimore as a finalist in December for a new container cargo hub. If Baltimore is chosen, the city's container business could triple. Baltimore's container business would rival Norfolk's, years of erosion in the opposite direction aside.
"You never like to lose any cargo, but that's how the business works," said Maryland Port Administration Director James White, who was appointed to the post Jan. 14. "We've made some gains, and now we have this great opportunity."
There are no guarantees. If Maersk and Sea-Land bypass Baltimore and the new automobile terminal becomes the drag on established business that critics predict, the port could end the year more underused than it is now. And 1999 would become another year of scrambling to keep the port from shrinking.
But the scrambling worked in 1997. While Cosco withdrew its Far East string, some other lines moved into Baltimore with smaller services. Evergreen Line added service to South America. A three-company alliance announced new South American service that will bring the British shipping line P&O-NedLloyd; back to the port.
For the year, the port of Baltimore's losses and gains were essentially a wash. The port had 1,844 vessel calls in 1998, a dozen more than the year before. In the first three quarters of 1998 the port's public terminals moved roughly 5.6 million tons of cargo, virtually equal to the same period in 1997.
Such is the nature of the shipping business in a city so far from the open ocean, competing in an evolving trade that places a premium on timeliness and speed. Baltimore's losses have come in waves, with whole steamship lines abandoning the port. Its gains come more in trickles.
"We've held our own -- and despite the very gigantic downturns in the Far East markets," said former U.S. Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, a consultant to the Maryland Port Administration. "And we've positioned ourselves well for the next year."
Port officials naturally focus on the city's strengths, and there are several. The port is far from the ocean, but that makes it closer to inland cities that need the cargo. Officials with Maersk and Sea-Land call that Baltimore's greatest asset. And such geography has attracted automobile manufacturers, who prefer their cars safely inside ships rather than rattling around on the railways and highways.
And the city's inland access could get better around March, when CSX Corp. and Norfolk Southern Corp. carve up the rail lines operated by Conrail Inc. The port's relationship with CSX is long-established, but when Norfolk Southern takes over its share of Conrail track, Baltimore will have two aggressive railroads competing for business on its piers.
When the new Masonville automobile terminal opens later this year the port will have more capacity to handle a cargo that has become its specialty. A Jacksonville, Fla.-based company, ATC Logistics Inc., has promised to move about 60,000 automobiles through the terminal in its first full year of operation, paying an average of $146,000 in monthly rent.
Even without the high-profile public container piers at the Dundalk and Seagirt marine terminals, Baltimore would remain a thriving maritime city. Ships carrying bulk products like coal, sugar and ore sail regularly into the city's private piers. The state's business in paper products and "roll-on/roll-off" cargo like farm equipment has grown.
But in the global shipping trade, the glamour cargoes move in 40-foot metal boxes on board ships that race across the oceans as quickly -- and as full -- as the steamship lines can manage. It is a means of commerce that has transformed the shipping trade, and one that largely has left the Port of Baltimore behind.
Maersk and Sea-Land could reverse that trend so resoundingly that their search has been hailed as nothing short of a potential rebirth of the city's container piers.
Baltimore moved about 300,000 cargo boxes in 1998; the Maersk/Sea-Land alliance wants a terminal that can handle 750,000 a year. Add that kind of volume to Baltimore and it would be second in size only to New York among East Coast container ports. Right now it's fourth or fifth.
Baltimore port officials work hard enough in boom times to overcome the city's geographic disadvantages; the struggle is even greater when the shipping companies are losing money. With most major steamship lines suffering from overcapacity and reduced rates for moving cargo, state officials acknowledge a difficult year ahead.
But Maersk and Sea-Land could change that, and port officials are focused intently on them.
"If we land that deal, in Cumberland the amount of CSX rail traffic is going to go up 35 percent," said John D. Porcari, secretary of the state Department of Transportation. "Think about that. This is an opportunity to bring jobs, and retain jobs, to every corner of the state."
Pub Date: 01/24/99