Following an expensive and largely unsuccessful attempt to upgrade the Baltimore port's computer systems a few years ago, the Maryland Port Administration and the shipping industry are again looking at ways to improve port computer communications.
MPA Director Adrian Teel said that, despite recent budget cuts and layoffs, he probably will increase resources in the Information Systems Department in an effort to improve computer services at the new Seagirt Marine Terminal and elsewhere.
Meanwhile, a private sector port committee has been established to explore new ways to integrate existing computer systems in the offices of stevedoring companies, freight forwarders, shipping lines and terminal operators.
"We expect to see an appreciable impact by the end of the fiscal year," Teel said. "If we can add a little more in that regard to provide information on cargo at any point in time, the more likely we are to attract and retain customers."
A few years ago, the port tried to implement a $9 million computer system known as Automated Cargo Release and Operations Service System -- ACROSS -- which was designed to allow port customers to clear documents with the U.S. Customs Service, communicate with one another, and perform other functions.
But a combination of rapidly changing markets and shifting requirements by Customs left the system without the number of users or functions it was designed for, port officials said.
Robert A. Shapiro, vice president of data processing with Samuel Shapiro & Co. customer brokerage, said his company's ACROSS terminal sits unused. The system was supposed to allow the company to transfer information to stevedoring firms, but employees never learned how to use the system, he said.
Teel said the ACROSS system has been used as a basis for other automation projects, but said he couldn't justify the expense. "It wasn't worth what it was," he said.
Teel said he hopes to improve computer services without repeating the mistakes of the past.
Currently, the MPA provides terminal computer services only at the Seagirt terminal, which its Maryland International Terminals subsidiary operates. Each cargo box entering or leaving the facility is logged into a computer by International Longshoremen's Association clerks who record whether the box is full or empty and type in information on the trucker, container number, chassis, destination, steamship line, vessel and weight.
The computerized gates make the delivery process more quick and efficient, and Seagirt's steamship lines can tap into the computer system to track their cargo.
G. Gregory Russell, the MPA's director of finance, said Seagirt uses some of the latest software, but the system is run on an 11-year-old mainframe computer. One of the considerations the port is pondering is whether to replace that unit and buy the additional software needed for a new mainframe.
The port also is looking at ways to upgrade software capabilities for its customers. One goal is to provide steamship agencies with more information on the supply of empty containers, keep better track of cargo movements within the terminal and increased communication between the port and the CSX Transportation railroad.
Shapiro, meanwhile, is heading the private sector committee to find ways to better integrate the various computer systems maritime agencies have.
The committee is investigating communications systems used by other ports and intends to survey local port businesses about their computer needs. The committee is leaning toward a computer mail system that would allow subscribers to send computer messages and computerized documents to one another.
A business would have to make an initial software purchase and pay a monthly fee based on how much it used the service, Shapiro said.
But Capt. William Chan, head of the Evergreen International Corp. offices in Baltimore, said he believes computer problems at the port have less to do with equipment than with manpower.
He said when Evergreen experimences problems with tracking its cargo at Seagirt or wants improvements in its computer programs, response is slow. "They aren't using the computer capacity fully," he said. "The basic system is right. They need to make use of it."