Trade Boom Boosts The Port

April 23, 1994|By Suzanne Wooton | Suzanne Wooton,Sun Staff Writer

The emergence of new trade routes and an improving world economy have prompted a significant expansion of steamship service at the port of Baltimore this year, with the increase already exceeding last year's total growth.

The boom comes as companies capitalize on new trade opportunities, particularly in South America and Southeast Asia, where governments are easing trade restrictions as their own economies develop.

Monday, for instance, Maersk Line will start service from Baltimore to the eastern coast of South America, calling on Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela.

Earlier this year, Maersk expanded its biweekly service to the western coast of South America.

"They've [South American countries] opened up their markets to more international traffic," said David Bindler, regional director for Maersk.

"It's the only place in the world we hadn't gone," he said.

The new and expanded services have meant more ships and cargo at the Port of Baltimore. And that's good news for dockworkers who unload the ships, bay pilots who guide the huge vessels to the terminals, and other port businesses such as freight forwarders.

"There's a lot more work here now," said Matt Capp, president of Local 333 of the International Longshoremen's Association, which represents cargo handlers.

Most members of his union work only when ships are available to load and unload. Some already have worked 200 to 300 more hours this year than they did at the same point in 1993, he said.

The additional ships also have offset the loss of business experienced by bay pilots as huge shipping lines increasingly have consolidated their cargo onto one vessel. While that has not resulted in the loss of tonnage for Baltimore, it had meant fewer ships coming here.

"Had this increased service not occurred, we'd be way down in business," said Michael R. Watson, president of the Association of Bay Pilots.

With Maersk alone, the expansion will mean a total of 52 more ships a year calling at Baltimore, according to Mr. Bindler. It also means that Maersk, one of the largest shipping lines at the port, will now offer weekly service to or from South America from Baltimore.

"We hope to start strong and build up," Mr. Bindler said.

Maersk is among seven steamship lines that have either added new service or expanded existing service in Baltimore. That compares with the same number for all of 1993.

Last year, general cargo handled by the port of Baltimore rose to 5.41 million tons from 5.15 million tons in 1992, a 5.4 percent increase. The additional vessels are expected to produce a greater increase in overall cargo for 1994.

The continuing trend is a welcome contrast to much of the past decade when steamship lines left Baltimore and cargo dwindled.

Port officials and business leaders say Baltimore's improved labor climate and more efficient terminals have made it an attractive place for steamship lines to expand service.

"People are looking at Baltimore quicker than they did before. We're performing better," said Sigmund Shapiro, owner and president of Samuel Shapiro and Co. freight forwarding company, which handles the logistics of getting cargo to and from the terminals.

So far this year, Shapiro revenues have jumped 30 percent, he said.

"Everything is moving. It's multifaceted. We're enjoying that increase because the port's handling it more efficiently," he said.

Changes in labor work rules -- such as starting at midnight and working in the rain -- are widely credited for increased efficiency at the port during the past two years.

New flexible time schedules have allowed a more continuous operation of the gates where cargo is processed.

"Lines have to be assured that their ships will be in and out in an efficient manner," said Michael P. Angelos, acting director of the Maryland Port Administration.

The only new steamship line to arrive in Baltimore this year has been China Ocean Shipping Co., one of the world's largest lines. It began service from Baltimore to the Far East this winter, providing a crucial shipping link between the port of Baltimore and the rapidly growing Far East market.

"It's going to be the biggest customer the U.S. has ever had," Mr. Shapiro said. China is undergoing an economic explosion as its huge labor force buys, builds and consumes ferociously. During the past two years, it has experienced 13 percent economic growth.

Before Cosco arrived, however, Baltimore had no direct shipping service to the Far East. Cargo bound for the Far East typically was loaded onto barges and transported to the ports of either New York or Norfolk, Va. That deprived longshoremen here of the more lucrative job of loading huge container ships.

As the economies develop in China and Southeast Asia, the port of Baltimore also could capitalize on more export opportunities. Increasingly, goods are being shipped to the East Coast via the Indian Ocean, the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean.

In the past, trade has been centered more in Japan and Korea and exports were often shipped to West Coast and sent by land to the East.

"We now now have an opportunity to get that cargo," Mr. Angelos said.

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