Port hits rough patch

At the beginning of the year, the Port of Baltimore was on a roll. At Seagirt Marine Terminal, the ribbon was cut on a 50-foot-deep berth financed by a $1.3 billion public-private partnership between the port and Ports America Chesapeake. The investment positioned Baltimore to be a major East Coast port of call for the larger ships expected in 2014 when the Panama Canal's expansion is completed.

The port was doing record business: 9.55 million tons of cargo over the past fiscal year and a surge in the cruise business, too. The biggest concern was about how the port would find room to expand — and even that challenge looked like it would soon be met at Coke Point, the former iron ore pier at Sparrows Point, with plans to convert it into an automobile terminal and replace some of the 2,000 jobs lost when the steelmaking facility went out of business last year.


But lately, the shipping news hasn't been quite so rosy. This summer, Carnival Corp. announced its intention to pull its 2,124-passenger Pride out of Baltimore next year over EPA low-sulfur fuel rules. This past week, the International Longshoremen's Association Local 333 went on strike, shutting down most of the port's cargo operations for three days. And protests in Morrell Park over a planned CSX Transportation rail facility have reached such a pitch that the local councilman, Edward Reisinger, has pulled his support and put the project in doubt.

The Carnival ship may yet be replaced, but possible loss of the intermodal rail facility at Mount Clare could prove costly. Moreover, the issues that prompted the strike remain unsettled, and any further work stoppages could hurt the port's reputation. Fortunately, there is reason to hope that it won't come to that; the port's three other unions have agreed to local contract terms, and the ILA national agreed to a 6-year master contract earlier this year.


Meanwhile, the $90 million CSX intermodal terminal is badly needed to serve the very same "Panamax" ships that are expected at Seagirt. Because the Howard Street tunnel is incapable of accommodating double-stacked trains, CSX requires a yard where containers can be transferred to freight lines that bypass the tunnel. So critical is this facility that the state has already agreed to pick up $32.5 million of its costs.

But Councilman Reisinger and others say CSX has not been responsive to local concerns about how their community may be impacted by a 24-hour operation that may bring hundreds of trucks into the neighborhood. While Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake continues to support the project, she appears unhappy with CSX as well, saying this week through a spokesperson that CSX will have to make a "serious attempt at addressing the concerns of residents and businesses or it will be very difficult for this project to move forward."

CSX needs to be responsive. But our elected officials also need to remember what's involved here. The port has become a crucial source of jobs for the city and the region — 14,600 directly and 40,000 more indirectly as well as $3 billion a year in wages and salaries and $300 million in state and local taxes. Its continued success ought to be one of state and local government's highest priorities. Surely, there's more local leaders can do to support its future than publicly chastising CSX or pledging to "monitor" labor negotiations.

The labor dispute may be on the path to resolution -- both sides reported progress on Friday -- Carnival's Pride may be replaced and CSX may yet offer concessions that would make the Southwest Baltimore terminal more palatable to local residents. But these are worrisome developments for a port that's enjoyed such unmitigated success in recent years. The port supports too many high-paying, private sector jobs for this to be taken lightly by anyone who cares about Maryland's economic future.