Baltimore's port charts a new course Maritime squeeze: Loss of cargo forces re-thinking of priorities by state, labor unions.

April 29, 1996

INTENSE ECONOMIC PRESSURES are forcing the Port of Baltimore to re-think the way it does business. Revolutionary changes in the maritime industry bode ill for this port unless a new approach is found to stem the loss of cargo and shipping lines. Sacrifices from all port actors are essential if Baltimore wants to regain this lucrative trade.

With consolidations, mergers and downsizing rippling through the maritime world, Baltimore's previous advantages have eroded. Deregulation robbed the port of its edge over arch-rival Norfolk. Now both Norfolk and Philadelphia are drawing cargo away from Baltimore, thanks to lower labor costs and flexible work rules. Norfolk has the added advantage of being close to the Atlantic, while Baltimore is 12 hours away by sea. Philadelphia, meanwhile, has dramatically cut rates for bulk break cargo -- wood pulp, fruit, steel -- and won new business that used to come here.

This puts port leaders in a bind. The old ways aren't working. Labor officials recognize that, however grudgingly. Recently, they persuaded longshoremen to bend rules so smaller gangs could unload 7,000 tons of steel from Belgium. The savings to the shipper saved a permanent shift of business to Philadelphia.

Longshoremen don't like making concessions. But as one union leader put it, "The choice is no cargo at all." This means longshoremen must find a way to devise a more flexible local contract this summer that will allow the union to pursue cargo aggressively by tailoring rates and work rules to the specific needs of each ship that calls at Baltimore.

At the same time, state officials have to revamp their strategy. No longer can Baltimore be a port for all seasons. It must focus on niches where it has an edge. This means erecting an expensive refrigeration warehouse for fruits. It probably means spending millions to expand Baltimore's leadership role as a handler of automobiles. It means wrapping up a deal with the railroads to re-build tunnels and bridges so trains can carry double-stacked loads.

All this will take a firm commitment from the governor and legislature to revive the port. It should be a major economic development project, given the huge impact this industry has on the entire state. Port officials have hired a strategic planner and the governor has put this on his priority list. But time is of the essence. Whatever it takes, the state, labor unions and the private sector must act to reverse the tide and lure lost cargo back to Baltimore.

Pub Date: 4/29/96

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