Transportation secretary O. James Lighthizer has begun his promised overhaul of the Maryland Port Administration by naming his former top assistant in Anne Arundel County as the MPA's new director. While Adrian Teel is touted by Mr. Lighthizer as a first-rate manager, he has absolutely no port or maritime experience, which could prove a major drawback in the Byzantine world that is the Port of Baltimore.
Mr. Teel's challenge is daunting. Baltimore's maritime community has been caught in a vicious, downward spiral. It is losing more and more cargo and steamship lines to Hampton Roads and other ports to the south. Its labor situation has been volatile, and self-defeating. Port-related businesses have failed to adjust to new maritime realities. The port administration is running a deficit and has gone through four directors recently.
Last month's resignation of Brendan W. O'Malley as port director gave Mr. Lighthizer the opening to shake things up. Still needed is a deputy director with maritime expertise. After that, you can expect a major housecleaning within the MPA to make the agency aggressive and cost-efficient.
Foremost on Mr. Teel's agenda must be a long-term strategy for the Baltimore port. It is no longer the preeminent Middle Atlantic port of call. Instead, Baltimore must find special cargo niches to dominate and maximize its new high-tech Seagirt Marine Terminal to attract container ships and cargo for the Midwest. With aggressive marketing and concentration on rapid cargo handling, the maritime business can remain a prime economic engine for the state's development and growth.
Already there are signs that the worst may be over. In the midst of a recession, Baltimore's docks still handled 6.5 percent more general cargo in the first quarter of the year. The surge was especially strong in exports -- a welcome sign for future expansion. Additionally, the dual-hoist cranes at Seagirt are performing beyond expectations, encouraging steamship lines to sign up to use the 265-acre facility. And Maryland's agreement with Kuwait to funnel U.S. cargo through Baltimore for that Mideast country's reconstruction could add to port growth.
The maritime world has changed dramatically, and not to Baltimore's advantage. Rail deregulation hurt the port. So did intense Atlantic port competition for a shrinking supply of marine cargo. Baltimore's location far up the Chesapeake adds nine hours to a ship's schedule.
New plans have to be devised to exploit the port's strengths and minimize its weaknesses. The port needs a stable labor situation, more cooperation within the entire maritime community and better management from Mr. Teel's agency. Adaptability is the key. The Port of Baltimore can yet thrive in the 1990s, but only if it is willing to change its ingrained ways of doing business.