Showcase terminal starts slow but boosts image of once-ailing port The saga of SEAGIRT

June 05, 1994|By Suzanne Wooton | Suzanne Wooton,Sun Staff Writer

At a lavish opening ceremony in 1990, Seagirt Marine Terminal was modestly hailed as the "the greatest facility in the world," a state-of-the-art container terminal that would restore the port of Baltimore to its former glory as the gateway to the Midwest.

One of the most technologically advanced terminals anywhere, Seagirt has been pivotal to the resurgence of the once beleaguered port. In an era when ports are competing furiously for fewer and fewer ships, it is the state's Camden Yards on the Patapsco, an impressive signal to the world's shippers that Maryland wants their business.

But the showcase Seagirt has gotten off to a slow start. In its first five years of operation, Seagirt is projected to lose a total of $2.5 million. The terminal -- creatively financed with money collected on the state's toll roads and bridges -- could require decades to recoup its $200 million in construction costs.

Its goal of luring new shipping lines to Baltimore has also been elusive. Since it opened, Seagirt has attracted only one new steamship line. The remainder of its tenants merely shifted their longtime port operations from Dundalk Marine Terminal next door to Seagirt.

"As far as I'm concerned, it was a $300 million white elephant that they built and shoved traffic out of Dundalk," said Jake Wade, former general manager of Cross Ocean Shipping Co. Inc. which serves the Dundalk terminal.

But, at a time when the port was losing money, hemorrhaging cargo to Norfolk and fighting thorny labor problems, state officials saw Seagirt as a critical marketing tool, an emblem of the state's commitment to the port's revival.

Any shortcomings thus far pale in comparison, they contend, to its vast contribution to the port's turnaround. The overall increase in cargo -- even as traffic wanes at other East Coast ports -- is a clear measure of its success, they say.

"If you understand why we did it and why we did it the way we did it, it's been a great success," said Maryland Transportation -- Secretary O. James Lighthizer.

Conceived in the late 1970s -- a brainchild of William Donald Schaefer as mayor of Baltimore -- Seagirt is a 265-acre facility that carries out the first basic rule of terminals: move cargo quickly.

Its seven, 230-foot high cranes hoist multi-ton boxes, known as containers, on and off ships at the pace of three dozen an hour, or 10 more than regular cranes. Its computerized gate facility acts like a toll plaza, speeding the movement of trucks dropping off and picking up containers. And its dockside rail terminal, known as the Intermodal Container Transfer Facility, permits the direct flow of containers from the ships to the trains.

While many facilities in the world perform one of those functions well, few do all three.

Seagirt opened the first fully automated gate system at the port, which became a model for the state's other marine terminals.

In a port once renowned for its labor problems, Seagirt was the first terminal where longshoremen worked through lunch hour. Checkers, who for decades had laboriously monitored cargo with pencil and paper, switched to sophisticated computers, moving 1,000 trucks a day through the terminal's eight lanes.

"The speed with which they move trucks in and out is second to none," said Edwin F. Hale, president of Hale Intermodal Transport, a trucking and barge company that is the port's largest private employer.

A decade ago, "second to none" was not exactly the port of Baltimore's reputation. And that meant the state needed to take a gamble, Mr. Lighthizer said.

"Seagirt is no different than Pier F [the planned international terminal at Baltimore-Washington International Airport] or an extra lane on 95," he said. "Our job is to provide a state-of-the-art transportation system that benefits Maryland."

For steamship lines -- who lease berths at one of Baltimore's five public terminals -- Seagirt is an exclusive facility, designed for major containership lines that handle large volumes of cargo.

In the midst of a worldwide shipping recession, luring them here was a challenge. Indeed, if ever there were a "field of dreams" -- a build-it-and-they-will-come project -- it was Seagirt.

Seagirt got off to an abysmal start. A bitter dispute erupted with longshoremen over jobs at the nearby rail yard. Steamship lines were reluctant to sign leases. A CSX Corp. official in late 1988 declared Seagirt "a laughingstock."

Just months before it was to open, the state faced the embarrassing prospect of a glittering terminal -- with no steamship lines signed up.

Ultimately, its first tenants -- Evergreen Marine and Mediterranean Shipping -- simply shifted their operations a few hundred yards down the Patapsco River from the 574-acre Dundalk Marine Terminal to the more modern, efficient Seagirt. Its next three shipping lines were also longtime customers at the port.

Until the arrival this spring of the Chinese shipping line Cosco, Seagirt had not landed a single new shipping line for the port of Baltimore.

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