Foreign trade plunges at port Port's share of business lowest in 20-plus years.

August 14, 1991|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,Evening Sun Staff

Foreign trade crossing the docks at the Port of Baltimore fell nearly 20 percent last year, leaving the port with its smallest share of North Atlantic cargo business in more than two decades, according to newly released statistics.

State officials point to some hopeful signs revealed in the first half of this year. But figures assembled by the Maryland Port Administration from federal data paint a far more gloomy picture for 1990 than had been previously indicated. The figures show:

* Despite millions of dollars in public investment, the port has failed to increase its trade in the lucrative handling of containerized cargo, or goods carried in standardized, vanlike boxes. That business fell last year to its lowest level in at least a decade.

* More than a quarter of the container cargo handled last year was domestic, a category that includes barge traffic from competing ports, business Baltimore once sought to avoid in favor of ship calls. It also includes ship trade with Puerto Rico.

* Baltimore's total foreign cargo tonnage last year was down 19.3 percent from the year before.

"The past is the past and we are looking forward to the future," said port administration spokesman J.C. Shay.

The port administration earlier this year released its tally of cargo handled at the state-owned piers, which showed an 11 percent decline in general cargo. But that rate of decline nearly doubled in the federal statistics compiled and released this week by the port administration.

Unlike the previous figures, the statistics released this week include data from privately-owned terminals, including the port's auto business, which is leveling off.

The port's share of the tonnage crossing docks from Virginia to Maine -- the North Atlantic range -- fell to 9.6 percent in 1990, from 11.8 percent the year before and 11.2 percent the year before that. Figures before 1967 were not available, but since then the port's market share has never been as low as 9.6 percent. In 1979, Baltimore's share was 14.7 percent.

In 1990, Baltimore's share of the business handled at all U.S. ports fell to 2.6 percent, from 3.2 percent the year before.

Grain, coal and other "bulk" commodities were down 19.4 percent at Baltimore last year, compared with the year before. General cargo was down 18.5 percent.

General cargo, which consists of containers, autos and other commodities not handled in bulk form, totaled 4.2 million tons. Although it represents less tonnage than bulk trade, general cargo is responsible for far more jobs because it requires more handling and processing.

State officials have spent millions of tax dollars in recent years to attract general cargo, especially containers. The $250 million Seagirt Marine Terminal was designed specifically to enhance container business.

But foreign and domestic container traffic fell to 3.9 million tons last year, from 4.3 million the year before and 4.7 million the year before that. The domestic component of that has remained relatively stable at around 1 million tons a year throughout the 1990s, but foreign container business fell last year to 2.8 million tons.

Although the port still profits from domestic trade, much of it comes in the form of barges which produce much smaller economic ripples than do ocean-going vessels that require many more goods and services, from tugs to fuel. Vessel calls at the port totaled 2,293 last year, down 7.4 percent from the year before.

Last year the port suffered through two strikes and the loss of three shipping lines that either went out of business or opted to step up their business at competing ports. All of this greatly aided the archrival Port of Hampton Roads, Va., which saw its foreign cargo rise 7 percent, to 70.5 million tons, and its general cargo volume grow by more than 10 percent, to 7.2 million tons.

Virginia has successfully taken advantage of deregulation in the shipping and railroad industries, which lessened Baltimore's traditional advantage of being closer to the Midwest industrial center. Ships now find it cheaper to dock in Virginia than to travel up and down Chesapeake Bay.

A worldwide reputation of labor instability has also hurt Baltimore's image.

"They [Baltimore] have been in a declining situation for some time. It is disappointing," said Leo Donovan, a vice president with Booz Allen and Hamilton, a Bethesda consulting firm active in the maritime industry.

The port has long tried to position itself as the "load center" of the mid-Atlantic, or the port of choice where ships would load and unload cargo to be trucked or barged in and out of ports elsewhere in the region. But the opposite has happened, with Baltimore growing more dependent upon cargo unloaded in other ports, chiefly Hampton Roads, Donovan said.

"It could still be a significant container port, but on a smaller scale . . . I would stop short of saying they will ever become the load center they dreamed of in the mid-'70s," Donovan said.

He said there is still substantial reason for hope in Baltimore, including Seagirt, a state-of-the-art terminal. Also, Hampton Roads is becoming congested and there is new leadership at Baltimore, he said.

Cargo was up at Baltimore in the first half of the year compared with the same period a year earlier, although some of that growth is due to the low totals from the year before, he said.

"1990 was a very poor year. I'm not sure they've turned the corner yet. But I think they've reached the bottom," Donovan said.

"Don't assume the trend is a continuum. They always seem to change in the port business," Donovan said.

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