Officials at the port of Baltimore are bracing for a "significant slowdown" in 1996 as revolutionary changes in the shipping industry intensify competition among East Coast ports.
"The consensus is we're on the verge of a significant slowdown," Tay Yoshitani, executive director of the Maryland Port Administration, said yesterday after the release of 1995 cargo statistics. "That's obviously a concern to us."
At the state's five public marine terminals, the volume of cargo rose slightly, from 6,320,792 short tons in 1994 to 6,332,836 short tons last year.
It was the second straight year that general cargo handled at the state's marine terminals had topped 6 million short tons. But that volume reflected nearly no growth in 1995 and followed a whopping 17 percent surge in 1994.
Indeed, the growth of cargo slowed dramatically in the latter part of 1995, signaling tough times ahead this year, Mr. Yoshitani said.
"The trend in the entire fourth quarter was soft," he said. "During the coming year, we will have a lot of competitive pressure."
In recent years, steamship lines that once called at a half-dozen ports on the East Coast have been forming alliances and choosing fewer ports in an effort to save time and money. In its battle with other ports, Baltimore must carefully target cargo, rather than assuming that it is positioned to capture everything, Mr. Yoshitani said.
"Now more than ever, it is important that we go after the cargoes and markets where we enjoy an advantage or can be competitive," he said.
Indeed, the year-end figures underscore Baltimore's need to more aggressively go after containerized cargo.
In the fourth quarter, the port saw container tonnage drop by 113,806 tons, or 9.3 percent, from 1,228,213 short tons to 1,114,407 short tons. Containers represent about 75 percent of the general cargo moving through the public terminals.
That drop was partly accounted for by Maersk Line Inc.'s decision to shift its inbound Middle East service from Baltimore to Norfolk, Va., earlier this year and by Maersk's temporary suspension last year of its weekly South American service from Baltimore. Because of its alliance with Sea-Land, Maersk is be-lieved to be considering further cuts in service at Baltimore.
In addition, Navieras, a major Puerto Rican shipping line at the port, dropped its longtime weekly service here.
The figures released yesterday by the MPA reflect only general cargo handled at the five public terminals. In March, the U.S. Census Bureau will issue a foreign commerce report that also will include tonnage from the port's private terminals. Those terminals handle coal, dry bulk products and automobiles, among other cargo.
Overall, MPA officials expect Baltimore's total foreign commerce for 1995 to surpass the 26.2 million tons handled by the port in 1994.
The year-end statistics released yesterday showed that exports remained strong in 1995, with a 9.9 percent increase -- from 2,650,439 million short tons to 2,911,922 short tons. A weak dollar and rebounding world economies helped produce a strong demand overseas for American-made products.
Imports, however, dropped 6.8 percent, declining from 3,670,353 short tons to 3,420,914 short tons. That trend was seen in the 9 percent decline in automobiles imported through the port.
Historically, the state's public terminals have handled a large number of Japanese-made Toyotas.
"The large increase in exports was indicative of the trend across the nation, but imports generally are down," Mr. Yoshitani said. "But that at least is good news for a better balance of trade."