In 2004, the port of Baltimore bought a pair of cranes so it could stack tractor-trailer-size metal containers. It built sheds to stow away ton upon ton of paper. And it agreed to move its cruise ship terminal from one berth in Dundalk to a less crowded one in South Locust Point.
The waterfront musical chairs is likely to continue in 2005 as consumers demand more products from overseas, from clothes to high-tech equipment to food. Already, the port is looking for new spaces for the growing number of tractors going out of the port and the automobiles coming in.
But the harbor has become attractive to more than the boots and flannel crowd. More people are clamoring for high-end condominiums with a view, along with waterfront dining opportunities. So the port, according to Maryland Port Administration Executive Director James J. White, will continue to battle for land with builders of condos and other non-industrial developments.
"We have a thriving port," said White, who heads the state-owned terminals. "If we continue to give up industrial land for condos we won't have a maritime business. It's very important to protect that."
The city took a big step in September, White said, when Mayor Martin O'Malley signed into law the creation of a new Maritime Industrial Overlay District that allows only maritime activities in a huge swath of waterfront for the next decade.
Helen Delich Bentley, the former congresswoman and a port consultant, agreed that was a key win for the port.
But Bentley said the state needs to gain control of more land, such as General Motors' sprawling Southeast Baltimore plant, which will be shuttered later this year after decades of production. The state has already made a request to GM to sign it over.
"There are all kinds of opportunities if we can get the land, the berthing space and the storage space all close together," she said.
The port signed two new contracts in 2004 that will bring tens of thousands of new Mercedeses and Jaguars through Baltimore over the next few years. Baltimore is now the second-largest East Coast port for automobile imports and exports behind New York and is gaining ground. The number of automobiles handled by the port was up about 5.5 percent in fiscal year 2004, which ended in June, compared with the same period a year earlier.
It is also the biggest handler of "ro-ro," which is farm and construction equipment that can roll on and roll off a ship on its own power.
Bentley said Baltimore could serve an important role in helping South Asia recover from the devastating tsunamis by quickly moving construction equipment overseas.
Container shipments, which have not grown as rapidly in Baltimore, could benefit from backups at ports in Los Angeles and Long Beach, Calif., that have resulted from enormous shipments of goods from China and other Asian countries, Bentley said.
The western ports are the closest sea routes from Asia, but the extra sailing time to the East Coast can be made up in some cases because there is no delay in unloading the ships. Goods can be placed on rail cars from either coast to get to their final markets in the United States. Some containerships already have begun sailing to East Coast ports such as Norfolk, Va., and New York.
To get to Baltimore, however, the ships have to make an extra 8- to 10-hour trip up the Chesapeake Bay. White said that lag has been "the toughest sell" to shippers, but delays elsewhere and the efficient operation in Baltimore have made it look more appealing.
The port would be even more appealing if dredged to a 50-foot depth to accommodate the biggest containerships, from its current depth of more than 40 feet, White said. It's unclear if there will be money in the budget for the underwater digging - likely to be in the millions of dollars - because of other transportation needs around the state, he said.
Bentley added that the state also needs to choose a place to put dredged material.
Port officials said a deeper berth would help new marketing efforts by the Maryland Port Administration, which oversees the public ports, and the effort to attract new business.
Any marketing and improvements to the channel would also benefit the state's private terminals, which are also expecting more work this year.
Although the private terminals do not report the amount they import and export to the state, they are handling more and more salt, aluminum and other metals, said George "Bud" Nixon Jr., chairman of the private-sector port coalition.
They also will need to build more sheds, pile cargo higher and expand onto more land.
"We're also exporting a lot of coal and importing a lot of salt," Nixon said. "When stocks run low, we bring in more cargo. And we, too, run out of room."