Port treading water Cargo decline?: Waffling on channel dredging, route consolidations bode ill for Baltimore.

March 08, 1996

JUST WHEN THINGS were looking rosy for the Port of Baltimore, a new set of ominous storm clouds can be seen on the horizon. Disputes over channel dredging and dramatic changes in the shipping industry foreshadow serious troubles.

There's no question Baltimore will suffer unless the legislature approves a dredging program. But a late switch by Gov. Parris Glendening against a departmental plan for limited disposal in the "deep trough" of the Chesapeake Bay created confusion. Lawmakers are wondering if the governor is trying to curry favor with environmental groups at the port's expense. Local opposition to other aspects of the dredging plan further complicates matters.

After delaying routine maintenance for two years, it is time to agree on new sites for dumping this spoil. A further hold-up could harm the port's competitiveness as steamship lines find channels too shallow and too narrow. At immediate risk are coal and iron ore commodities if the 50-foot southern approach starts to fill with silt. Failure to keep the C&D Canal northern approach at 35 feet would jeopardize nearly half the port's containerized cargo.

And yet there's no urgency in Annapolis. Certainly not from the governor's office, which scotched the most promising option -- an experiment with spoil disposal in the bay's "dead" area known as the deep trough. That pleased environmentalists who aren't even willing to test dumping at this site, but left the state without a fiscally realistic plan for dredging.

While this issue festers without resolution in Annapolis, cargo volume at the port already appears vulnerable. Steamship lines, to save time and money, are forming alliances and visiting fewer ports. That is one reason Tay Yoshitani, the new port director, says Baltimore "is on the verge of a significant slowdown." It will take hard work by both the public and private sector to hold onto existing cargo and to find cargo niches where Baltimore can gain the upper hand against competitors.

Anything that makes Baltimore more appealing to shippers must be exploited. Anything that could cause a loss of cargo must be fixed. That means finding a solution to the chronic dredging dispute -- now. At stake is a local industry responsible for 87,000 jobs and $2.4 billion in economic impact.

Pub Date: 3/08/96

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