By Karen E. Thuermer, AJOT
The Port of Baltimore, which hails from a unique location on the Chesapeake Bay, has sometimes been regarded a loss leader. But while other US East Coast ports have been attracting the big news headlines, Baltimore has been reaping the fruits of its hard work.
For one, in 2003, the public terminals at the port surpassed seven million tons of general cargo for the first time since World War II. As part of the good news, a 12% growth in commodities enables the port to maintain its national leadership position in forestry products and Roll On/Roll Off (ro/ro) cargo.
In a recent phone interview with AJOT, Maryland Port Administration Executive Director James J. White stresses that even when the US economy was in a tail spin these recent years, business at the Port of Baltimore was on the way up. Business has been so good, that in 2001 the port overhauled its Strategic Plan of 1996
“This became one of the main instruments of our success,” White says. “We targeted our key commodities—forest products and automobiles—just before the worldwide recession, and found that Americans have such a love affair with the automobile that despite the fact the stock market went to hell in a hand basket, people were buying cars.”
No. 2 for automobile business
The automobile trade is highly competitive with ports. Still, the Port of Baltimore is the No. 1 port in the country for the export of automobiles.
“For import/export combined we are No. 2, behind only the Port of New York/New Jersey,” White says. “Last year we moved from No. 3 to No. 2.”
All this while Toyota, once the port’s big customer, revamped its business model.
“Toyota’s business has changed significantly since the Port originally contracted with them, a contract that was for 16 years,” White says.
At the time, Toyota imported its cars. But later, Toyota built manufacturing plants in the United States. Consequently, while last year the port processed 130,000 Toyota cars through its facilities, 90,000 cars came up from Mexico and plants in the United States.
“As a result, the Port did not see the economic benefits it does from imports,” White says. “With imports there are more ship calls. More pilots are employed. More trucks are used for distribution, as well as longshoremen handling the cargo on and off the ships. We don’t see this activity with domestic products.”
Today, port executives are certain they will get another manufacturer and processor to lease its facility and provide the Port a larger percentage of international cargo. In fact, the port is currently working with a couple of accounts, but they cannot reveal who they are since the Port is close to signing a deal.
Tops for Ro/Ro
For ro/ro, Baltimore remains in the No. 1 position, despite the fact that the ro/ro business has been flat for the last four years. The Port of Baltimore commands 50% of the ro/ro market on the East Coast. White anticipates the business to spike this year.
“Our ro/ro business is already up 64% over what we handled in Calendar Year 2003,” he says. “In 2003, we did 220,000 tons. This year we are doing 362,000 tons.”
Much of the product encompasses farm equipment from John Deere, Caterpillar, Case New Holland and Komatsu; as well as project cargo for factories and plants, and locomotives and subway cars. The business is favorably balanced largely because manufacturers like Caterpillar and John Deere manufacture both in the United States and abroad.
“You will see their equipment going on and off of ro/ro ships,” White says.
Competitive for container freight
Given that five major ports operate within a 200-mile span of the US East Coast, the containerized business is highly competitive.
“When we negotiate with the steamship lines, it is always on price,” White says.
In White’s opinion, Seagirt Container Facility at the Port of Baltimore is one of the best-run container facilities in the United States. While other ports have problems with traffic congestion due to trucks tr