Baltimore battles for port business; Three deals: Long-term contracts could make major state investment in waterfront a wise investment.


BALTIMORE'S port sure is attracting attention from international shippers these days. Three big deals are on the table, with this city well positioned in the heated race for more cargo.

Yet earlier in this decade, shipping lines left Baltimore for nearby ports that had more cooperative dock workers, better rail rates or were closer to the open waters of the Atlantic.

The economics of maritime commerce are changing. What was a negative 10 years ago is now a positive.

Baltimore's port community has finally come together to promote an aggressive marketing effort. This has included a more pragmatic, flexible attitude from the longshoremen's union; financial incentives to shippers from the state; and better rail service with the summertime arrival of Norfolk Southern Corp.

These ingredients nearly won Baltimore a huge contract from the Maersk/Sea-Land consortium last spring. That same gung-ho approach has made the port a finalist for three long-term shipping contracts.

This city is the nation's No. 1 port for roll-on, roll-off cargo ("ro-ro") -- autos and farm equipment. It has the storage space, handling expertise and proximity to Midwest markets that appeals to the world's "ro-ro" leader, Willenius-Wilhelmsen Line.

Baltimore also has carved out a niche in forest products, spending $3 million to upgrade warehouses. That, plus the city's reputation for efficient handling of paper deliveries, intrigues a major Finnish paper manufacturer.

Finally, Baltimore and arch-rival Norfolk are vying for the consolidated business of the container shipping giant, Evergreen Line. Baltimore has an edge in its closeness to consumer markets and a superior road network.

The state's role is pivotal. The Evergreen deal, for instance, would require dredging a deeper berth and buying modern gantry cranes at a cost of $70 million.

These talks also highlight why the port must push ahead on its dredge-disposal plan, including open-water dumping. While that step is controversial, it has been done in the past without lasting harm to the Chesapeake Bay.

Baltimore's port is a key economic engine for this region. Gaining more business -- and jobs -- should receive priority attention from the port community and from the governor.

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