Trade pacts, labor peace bode well for port activity

January 02, 1994|By Suzanne Wooton | Suzanne Wooton,Staff Writer

Thanks to landmark agreements liberalizing world trade and harmony between longshoremen and management, the port of Baltimore enters 1994 well positioned to continue its steady growth in cargo.

"The trade agreements benefit all ports in the world, but we should see more than our share of goods flowing through Baltimore to the heartland of the country," said Adrian G. Teel, executive director of the Maryland Port Administration, the state agency that operates the port's five public terminals here.

Both the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) accord are expected to boost trade by eliminating or substantially reducing tariffs.

Still, a cloud looming over Baltimore and other ports is the uncertain world economy.

"We're optimistic, but the economy is a big question mark," said Maurice Byan, head of the Steamship Trade Association that represents many of the major steamship lines serving Baltimore.

In recent years, the worldwide recession has prompted major shipping lines to consolidate their cargo and share vessels.

That has meant fewer ships calling on Baltimore and many other ports. But so far, the consolidated services are carrying more cargo to Baltimore.

Port officials and others say Baltimore has fared well during industry consolidation, largely because of the improved relationship between labor and management that gives the once-strife-ridden port greater stability. Earlier this year, longshoremen voted handily to extend their contract for two years rather than face difficult negotiations in 1994.

"The factors that judged Baltimore in the past have changed considerably," Mr. Byan said. "Now we're being judged on our performance, which is first-class."

lTC Overall, Mr. Teel predicts that the 3 percent to 4 percent growth in cargo experienced over the past 15 months will continue during the first half of 1994, with an even greater increase in the latter part of 1994 as the impact of the trade agreements is realized.

Among the nation's ports, Baltimore was highly visible as Clinton administration officials appeared here several times last year to lobby for passage of NAFTA.

While the potential impact of trade agreements still is being analyzed here, Mr. Teel expects they'll boost exports like automobiles, which have been sluggish. That could be good news for a local manufacturer, General Motors, and its popular minivans.

Because of NAFTA, products from South and Central America that currently move by truck and rail, soon can be shipped more cheaply by ship to the U.S. and Canada through East Coast ports, he said.

"We at least have an opportunity to get more business," Mr. Teel said.

Among the most promising developments for 1994 was the decision by China Ocean Shipping Company (COSCO), one of the largest steamship lines in the world, to begin service this month every three weeks to and from Baltimore.

It is the first direct service to the Far East from Baltimore, a service that shippers and importers had long complained was lacking at the port of Baltimore.

The COSCO ships will mean more cargo for dockworkers to unload, more work for bay pilots whose tugboats bring the huge vessels to port and more work for other port-related businesses like freight forwarders.

Indeed, the port's man-hours -- a kind of economic barometer -- are expected to increase in 1994 for the second consecutive year after declining for more than a decade.

While the port is not expected to ever return to its heyday, the steady increase appears more than welcome.

"More cargo means more work," said Mr. Teel, "and that's good news any time."

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