Long lines force delays at area marine terminal Problems at Dundalk could hurt port

April 21, 1993|By Suzanne Wooton | Suzanne Wooton,Staff Writer

Truckers at Dundalk Marine Terminal are encountering long and costly delays as a result of operating changes designed to modernize the 570-acre complex.

The delays, which began several weeks ago, are also threatening to hurt the entire port of Baltimore, which recently has been reversing its strife-ridden and inefficient image.

"It's really, really serious right now," said Edwin F. Hale Sr., chief executive officer of Hale Intermodal Transport Co., the port's largest trucking company. "Baltimore has had a lot of good progress, but it could be stopped right now."

Yesterday afternoon, trucks were backed up 10 deep, in six parallel lines waiting to enter a new consolidated terminal within the Dundalk complex either to drop off containers, to pick them up or both. Drivers gathered alongside their idling trucks as what typically has been a half-hour wait to enter the facility has sometimes turned into a day-long event, they said.

"I've sat here for eight hours just trying to get one load in," said Dave Riffey, an independent driver from Baltimore who owns his own rig and often moved six loads a day. "We're just sitting here burning fuel, polluting the atmosphere."

The delays result from the opening of a centralized terminal, operated by Ceres Marine Terminals, that has replaced the numerous separate storage areas for each major steamship line.

Under the new approach, the stevedore company is serving all its customers in one location, allowing it to use its workers, equipment and space more efficiently. A similar operation by Maersk Inc./Universal Maritime Service Corp. is expected to open in mid-May.

Along with the consolidation, however, Ceres has shifted from a manual system to a sophisticated computer system that is confounding clerks and truckers alike.

The changes are aimed, ironically, at reducing the time it takes truckers to get into the terminal, drop off a load, pick up another and get back on the highway.

They are intended to give Dundalk advantages similar to those at the high-tech Seagirt Marine Terminal, the state-operated facility adjacent to Dundalk.

The delays, in fact, are not unlike those experienced at Seagirt when it opened two years ago.

While Seagirt serves only a handful of large shipping lines, the privately-operated Ceres terminal handles nearly two dozen shipping lines.

"We're going through our growing pains on this one," said Edward Heinlein, vice president of Ceres.

But the start-up problems apparently have been far worse.

The delays have been especially hard on independent drivers, like Mr. Riffey, whose ability to make money depends on how many loads they can pick up and deliver in one day.

And they are also having a trickle-down effect.

"It means late deliveries for our customers and they're complaining," said Ed Callihan, a driver for E.I. Kane Intermodal Transport Inc. of Rittman, Ohio, who had hauled a load of tires from Akron and was late returning with a tanker of Scotch for an Ohio distiller.

Along with slowdowns associated with the new computer system, the Ceres operation has been plagued by a shortage of lanes and scales.

In addition, Ceres is negotiating staffing changes with its clerks who are members of the Local 953 of the International Longshoremen's Association (ILA).

Some truckers were quick yesterday to blame the clerks, saying they want to pressure Ceres to increase staffing levels by slowing down the work.

But Tommy Benewicz, chief clerk at the Ceres terminal, denied that the delays have been caused by labor.

"We always get blamed. It's not our fault," he said. "We're doing the best we can with what we got to work with. Whenever we get a nice package here between the company and the union about staffing, I think things will be fine."

The difficulties at the new Ceres terminal have not only resulted in talks between the ILA and Ceres, but have also prompted a series of meetings among truckers, stevedore companies, freight forwarders and the Maryland Port Administration, which leases Ceres the space at Dundalk.

"We have to fix this problem," said Michael Angelos, deputy director of MPA. "If Ceres customers aren't happy, it could cost the port of Baltimore business."

Dundalk, in fact, handles most of the cargo at the port. Because of its size and importance, the level of efficiency at Dundalk goes a long way toward defining the overall performance of the port.

Citing impressive cooperation between the parties involved, Mr. Angelos predicted the situation at Dundalk will be resolved this week. But many truckers seem less optimistic.

"I don't see any signs of it getting better," said Mr. Riffey, "And I don't know how much longer we can take it."

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