At long last, there's ample reason to be optimistic about the future of the Port of Baltimore. Cargo business in most categories is up, companies are expanding their operations here and new shipping lines are moving in. For the first time in three years, the port is turning a slight profit for Maryland taxpayers.
This heady news comes at a time when the port is still feeling the lingering effects of the worldwide recession. Steel and auto shipments through the third quarter were down dramatically, both signs of weak economies at home and abroad. Yet other general cargo moving through Baltimore rose by 50,000 tons and the city took market share away from other East Coast rivals, such as Philadelphia and Norfolk.
Most encouraging for next year was the recent announcement that Maersk Line of Denmark plans to increase its already substantial calls here by nearly 25 percent. Starting in January, ships bound for or coming from the West Coast of South America will stop here twice a month, a move that could open up substantial new business south of the equator. Maersk's move also means Baltimore could become a sizable handler of containerized fruit, siphoning business from Philadelphia as this city continues to seek specialized niches for itself in cargo handling.
Port officials have tried in the past few years to turn around a dismal situation on the Baltimore docks. They have stripped away excessive management layers, established a good rapport with the International Longshoremen's Association leadership and found creative ways to win back the confidence of shipping lines. Privatizing sections of the Dundalk Marine Terminal seems to be working, as does the growing use by shippers of the ultra-modern Seagirt Marine Terminal. Union problems have diminished greatly, morale is up and downtime on the public piers has dropped appreciably. On the private piers, meanwhile, coal business appears to be booming for the second year in a row.
With signs pointing to an improved U.S. economy in 1993, the Port of Baltimore is well positioned to take advantage of new shipping opportunities. But port management will have to continue its newly found aggressiveness if it intends to increase market share, especially against arch-rival Norfolk. For once, though, the indicators on the city docks are pointing up, not down. One of the state's primary economic engines seems to be revving up for an accelerated ride in 1993.