The port of Baltimore is well-poised to compete in an international maritime industry in which the ships and the facilities that handle them just keep getting bigger, its chief executive said Monday.
In a wide-ranging interview in his World Trade Center office overlooking the Inner Harbor, the Maryland Port Administration's executive director, James J. White, appraised Baltimore's strengths and weaknesses as it goes head-to-head with rival ports on the East Coast.
White said Baltimore's business is rebounding well after taking a beating during the recession. The port handled 32.8 million tons in 2010 after dropping to 22.4 million tons in 2009.
"We had a rebuilding year, but we're still focused on market share and gaining market share," White said.
The port chief said he expects the port's competitiveness to be bolstered next year when it opens a 50-foot-deep berth with four new, long-reaching cargo cranes at Seagirt Marine Terminal.
The berth and cranes are part of a 50-year, public-private partnership formed in 2009 between the state and Ports America Chesapeake. That deal is expected to allow the port of Baltimore to welcome the larger ships that will begin passing through the Panama Canal after a widening project there is completed in 2014.
White said that when the canal project is finished, Baltimore will be one of only two East Coast ports equipped to load and off-load the larger containerships that will then be able to travel directly between Asia and the East Coast.
The other is arch rival Norfolk, Va. But all of the others, including the giant port of New York and New Jersey, are constrained by physical limitations that will delay for years their ability to handle the largest ships, White said.
Shipping is an industry in which size increasingly matters, White said. About eight years ago, he said, few in the industry foresaw a day when ships would be able to handle more than 6,000 to 7,000 container units — a widely used industry standard based on the size of the metal containers in which many goods are shipped.
Now, he said, the port is seeing ships that handle loads of more than 8,000 units. A trade publication has reported that the Maersk shipping line has ordered 10 ships with the capacity to haul 18,000 units each.
White said he doesn't expect to see such behemoths showing up in Baltimore, but he said the new Seagirt terminal will be able to unload ships arriving with about 14,000 container units.
The port of New York and New Jersey, he said, will face years of competitive disadvantage because many of the larger ships will be unable to pass under the Bayonne Bridge. Baltimore faces no such issues.
White said he does not expect ships to keep getting heavier and sitting lower in the water because few ports would be able to accommodate them.
"I think that the ship owners are aware they should stop at that 50-foot depth because dredging is so much more challenging and more expensive year after year," he said. "We're pushing the limits right now."
The port of Baltimore is served by a 50-foot channel.
White acknowledged, however, that Baltimore will continue to face some of the same disadvantages it has long grappled with: its relative distance from the open sea, a lack of available land for terminal facilities and a notorious rail bottleneck — the Howard Street Tunnel — that doesn't permit double-stacking of containers on freight trains.
Those factors have constrained the state's ability to develop Baltimore as a port through which shippers choose to bring cargo destined for markets in the deep interior of the country, White said. At the same time, the port has set a new 12-month record for container traffic.
"What drives that is local consumption," White said.
But Baltimore's consumption is considerable: White said the corridor between Washington and Philadelphia contains 14 million people. Norfolk, despite its easy ocean access and double-stack freight train capabilities, can't match Baltimore's local market, he said. In addition, the markets in the near Midwest can easily be reached by truck from the port of Baltimore, he said.
Another area in which Baltimore's local market is an advantage is the cruise business, White said.
The port chief said that the business is thriving, with most cruise ships leaving with a full house. White said that other cruise lines are interested in tapping into the Baltimore market, but that the South Locust Point cruise terminal is at capacity, especially on weekends.