Propelled by a weakening dollar, a surge of exports - especially autos - drove the value of cargo moving through the port of Baltimore last year to a record $41.9 billion, though tonnage increased less than 1 percent, the Maryland Port Administration said yesterday.
The gain of more than 13 percent overall was a $5 billion increase over 2006, according to the annual report released by the MPA.
An 80 percent increase in autos, to nearly 294,000, made Baltimore the top vehicle exporter in the nation, eclipsing Jacksonville, Fla., the MPA said.
Total tonnage was 30.8 million tons, with exports up 35 percent to 11.3 million tons. Imports, which have become more expensive as the value of the dollar has fallen against many currencies, fell 12 percent to 19.5 million tons.
Volume handled by the port's public marine terminals rose by 100,000, tons to 8.7 million tons, also a record.
Overall, the port ranked 12th nationally for total dollar value of cargo and 13th for cargo volume, up from 14th for freight volume in 2006.
The port directly employs about 16,500 people, MPA officials said.
"Last year was a very healthy year," said James J. White, director of the Maryland Port Administration. "But looking at the momentum we have right now, we do expect it to slow because the U.S. economy is strained. We're probably going to take a dip this year and into the following year."
Overall shipments of containers - the port's bread and butter - rose 6.4 percent, with imports unchanged at about 190,000 in the equivalent of 20-foot containers, while exports increased 14 percent, to 130,000 units.
"Containers are very important to us," White said. "It's still a major commodity and really what pays the bills. Without containers, our revenues would suffer tremendously."
The port's handling of automobiles and roll-on/roll-off, or ro-ro, cargo, which includes farm machinery and construction equipment, remains a bright spot, White said. The port handles more ro-ro, trucks and imported forest products than any other U.S. port. Lumber volume declined in 2007, however, as the housing market cooled, and White expects that trend to continue this year.
The number of automobiles handled by the port rose 26 percent last year, to 597,817. Imports were down 7,000, to 304,258 autos, but that was more than offset by the surge in exports. Chrysler LLC, in particular, expanded its export business in Europe, shipping Dodge cars in addition to trucks there for the first time, according to Amports, which runs four auto-processing terminals in Baltimore. Chrysler ships about 98 percent of its exports - which include Jeep and Dodge vehicles - through Baltimore, White said.
"Chrysler has pinpointed Baltimore as the best place for their distribution," said Richard Kilbride, Amport's senior vice president for business development.
"Other car companies have also found out it's an exceptional import location for the Mid-Atlantic. With the economy down, that just shows how good this location is, because in a down market they did fantastic."
Many foreign companies, such as Toyota, Honda and Hyundai, manufacture vehicles in the United States, which could be another reason that import volume is down, Kilbride said.
But Baltimore has cemented its reputation with the industry as "the premier port" for exports of "basically anything with wheels on it," said Paul Bingham, a principal with Global Insights Inc. who monitors the port sector.
"Exporters like using Baltimore because they trust the port collectively to handle those goods efficiently and with minimal damage," Bingham said.