Despite tough times for Port of Baltimore, optimism reigns

By: | at 08:00 PM | Channel(s): Ports & Terminals  

By Karen E. Thuermer, AJOTKeep your eye on the prize. For the Port of Baltimore, that could be a motto to adopt while transitioning from this era of super tight budgets to opportunities in the future. That said, Maryland Port Administration (MPA) officials see great potential for its state-owned Seagirt Marine Terminal when the world comes out of this wretched recession. It just needs a private partner to help fund what it sees as necessary infrastructure improvements.
However, today the future seems bright. In July, MPA officials announced that Ceres Terminals Inc./Alinda Capital Partners LLC and Ports America Group/Highstar Capital have passed MPA’s qualification process and are now permitted to submit bids to run the Southeast Baltimore terminal.
“The Maryland Port Administration and its Seagirt Marine Terminal is now at the stage where we have released a request for offers,” comments MPA Executive Director James J. White in a telephone interview with AJOT. “We are excited that we have two of the largest stevedores in the United States that showed interest in this.”
According to White, MPA is expecting offers back by September 4. The conditions of the bid requires the would-be operator to lease Seagirt from MPA for a minimum of 30 years and put up an estimated $80 million needed to build a new 50-foot berth.
Seagirt Marine Terminals is the Port of Baltimore’s major container terminal. With seven post Panamax cranes, including three dual hoist cranes, and 12 rubber tired gantry cranes, Seagirt boasts an average of 37 moves per hour making it one of the fastest and most efficient on the US East Coast.
Officials see that berth as critical to accommodating the larger ships expected to call on the port after the project to widen the Panama Canal is completed in 2014.
“The driving force behind this search for a private partner is funding,” White says. “The port does not have adequate funding to build the new 50-foot deep container berth for the larger vessels that will be transiting through the Panama Canal.”
White sees Seagirt’s infrastructure improvement as critical to the port’s future. “We think the Port of Baltimore will benefit more [from the Panama Canal widening] than most other East Coast ports because of large consumer base we have here,” he explains.
Not only is Baltimore one of only two ports on the East Coast that have a 50-foot channel (the Port of Virginia being the other); Baltimore’s location on the Eastern Seaboard puts its seaport in close proximity to the metropolitan areas of Washington, DC, Philadelphia, and New York City.
“We have the third largest consumer base in the country,” he says.
The Port is in the heart of the fast growing Baltimore-Washington consumer market, one of the largest and wealthiest markets in the nation.
However, where the port has been lacking is its inability to bring ships 200 feet off the berth. And with state budgets now tight, MPA is looking at the private-public partnership to provide that funding.
Once the Panama Canal project is widened, larger steamships will be able to transit the Canal that currently are not able to do so. This means these larger ships carrying goods for East Coast consumption will be able to call on East Coast seaports direct and not transit across the United States from West Coast ports.
White estimates the cost of shipping goods via rail transit across the United States to the East Coast is about $2,000 per container compared to a $150 local truck move for containers that come direct.
“For that reason, I think the Panama Canal project will benefit us greatly,” he says. “But we won’t have the proof of that until 2014-2016.”
Meanwhile, MPA continues to make other improvements to keep the port competitive. These include the reclamation of approximately 133 acres of land at Masonville, a project that should be completed within the next ten to 12 years. The extra acreage will be used for additional parking for automobile shipments.

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American Journal of Transportation