State officials and maritime executives are encouraged by signs that the steady erosion of the port of Baltimore's cargo base may be ending.
For the first time in more than two years, cargo volumes in the port have grown for two straight quarters, according to figures released yesterday by the Maryland Port Administration.
"Maybe we've bottomed out; maybe we're starting to climb back out," Maurice C. Byan, president of the Steamship Trade Association of Baltimore Inc., said.
During the second quarter, 1.4 million tons of cargo moved over state piers, a 4.1 percent increase over the second quarter of last year. That comes on the heels of a 6.5 percent gain in the first quarter.
The last time the port experienced two straight quarters of growth was in late 1987 and early 1988, according to the MPA.
The biggest gains came in steel, which showed a 46.4 percent gain in the second quarter, and in break bulk cargo, which showed a 30.2 percent increase. Break bulk includes a variety of non-containerized cargo, notably wood pulp and heavy equipment.
The surge in wood pulp imports represents the continued success of Baltimore Forest Products Terminals Inc. The company unloads ships carrying South American wood pulp of the type used for paper diapers and sanitary napkins, stores the pulp in a dockside warehouse and later loads the bundles of pulp onto rail cars for shipment to the paper mills that turn it into finished products.
Baltimore Forest Products Terminals accounted for more than 60 percent of the break bulk gains recorded by the port in the first six months of this year.
Scott C. Menzies, president of Baltimore Forest Products Terminals, said that his company's success in what is a very specialized cargo could provide a model for the port's future growth.
"We're concentrating on quality and production," he explained. Specialization in a single "niche" cargo "allows us to get the production we need," he said.
Concentrating on specialized cargoes is the way to succeed in a very competitive environment, Mr. Menzies believes. "I think this is the future of ports."
He credited good productivity from labor and greater cooperation among various port interest groups for creating a good competitive environment for his business in the port.
"Our business is going to continue to grow at a pretty healthy rate as long as we get the support we've had from labor and the Port Administration," he said. "This is one big stew, and everybody's in it."
Another bright spot for the port was military cargo. Last year, despite the buildup in the Persian Gulf, very little military cargo moved through Baltimore. So far this year, nine ships have unloaded military gear in Baltimore.
The growing importance of niche cargoes like wood pulp and steel was underscored by the fact that container traffic remained stagnant, increasing only 0.3 percent in the first six months. In the second quarter, container traffic declined 1.5 percent.
Container traffic remains the most important category of cargo handled at state piers, representing about three-quarters of total general cargo tonnage. Much of the state's huge investment in the port has been in facilities to handle containerized cargo, but the competition among East Coast ports for that category of cargo and the shipping lines that carry it is fierce.
Adrian Teel, the executive director of the MPA, said that the cargo gains were the result of cooperation among a variety of port interests, including CSX Transportation. The railroad, he said, played a key role in the increased steel shipments. (The increased steel movement was all on the export side. The amount of imported steel handled in the port actually declined.)
He said that he believes the port can realize continued growth in specialized commodities but that containers would remain the core of the port's business.