Public dock tonnage declines Drop is nearly 7%

container traffic, auto imports are off

Down from a near-record

Bulk cargo, such as coal, lets private terminals continue to rebound

June 05, 1996|By Suzanne Wooton | Suzanne Wooton,SUN STAFF

With declines in container traffic and automobile imports, the volume of cargo moving through the port of Baltimore's public terminals fell nearly 7 percent during the first quarter of the year.

The drop from 1,574,736 short tons to 1,470,121 short tons was the first quarterly decline in nearly three years, and followed last year's near-record first quarter.

While business at the Maryland's five public terminals has slowed considerably, the private terminals -- which largely handle bulk commodities, such as coal, grain and cement -- have been experiencing a strong surge.

According to statistics prepared by the U.S. Census Bureau, total foreign commerce, which includes the public and private terminals, grew 19 percent to 31.1 million short tons in 1995, the best year since 1981.

That included a 62 percent increase to 12.8 million tons in the amount of coal exported through Baltimore. Overall, exports soared 58 percent to 16.8 million tons at Baltimore's public and private terminals combined, reflecting a national trend. By contrast, imports here overall have declined 8 percent.

Exports have grown in large measure because the weak dollar has made U.S. goods more affordable overseas.

Port officials said yesterday they expect that the volume of cargo handled by the public terminals will remain flat for most of 1996 -- an optimistic projection since Maersk Inc., the big Danish steamship line that is one of the largest lines serving Baltimore, has cut two-thirds of its service here since April.

The impact of that loss -- including roughly 100 ships a year -- did not show up in the first-quarter statistics, released by the MPA yesterday.

"We'll remain flat for a couple more quarters," said Tay Yoshitani, executive director of the Maryland Port Administration, which overseas the public terminals.

"We can't turn this thing around overnight."

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.

Maersk's alliance with Sea-Land Service Inc. resulted in its decision to end several key services here.

Last summer, Navieras, a major Puerto Rican container line, ended its weekly service here.

Yoshitani yesterday reiterated that Baltimore, in its battle with other ports, must carefully target cargo, rather than assume that it is positioned to capture everything.

"We really have to diversify our cargo mix," he said.

Currently, more than 70 percent of the Baltimore port's business is concentrated in containers, the massive steel boxes carried on ships.

Port officials soon are expected to unveil their strategic plan which calls for a greater focus on break-bulk cargo, such as heavy equipment, steel and fruit.

"The reality is there are greater opportunities in break bulk," Yoshitani said.

Import container tonnage declined 7.6 percent in the first quarter.

Export container tonnage declined 6.3 percent.

While automobiles traditionally have been a strong market for the port, auto imports dropped off substantially during the quarter, declining 33 percent over the same period in 1995.

Port officials said more and more foreign companies are making their cars at plants in the United States, resulting in fewer imports.

In addition, Japanese companies are more frequently shipping cars to the West Coast and then moving them eastward by rail.

Pub Date: 6/05/96

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