Strategy sets new course for port Targeting container cargo, consumer market are keys

Seeking competitive boost

State funds would be needed to build some facilities

The port

July 03, 1996|By Suzanne Wooton | Suzanne Wooton,SUN STAFF

Recognizing that the port of Baltimore faces serious disadvantages in competing with East Coast rivals, Maryland officials yesterday unveiled a strategic plan that recommends more carefully targeting container cargo and significantly boosting its breakbulk business.

The plan -- which plays to Baltimore's location in the nation's fourth largest consumer market -- reflects vast changes in the maritime industry, with carriers forming alliances and vessel sharing agreements.

Industrywide, the result of those pacts has been fewer ships calling at fewer ports. Such a pact between Sea-Land Service Inc. and Maersk Inc., for instance, recently prompted Maersk to end two-thirds of its container service in Baltimore, resulting in the loss of 100 ships a year here.

The plan covers the next three to five years for the Maryland Port Administration, which operates the state-owned terminals in Baltimore. Those facilities handle both containerized and breakbulk cargoes, such as fruit and vegetables, steel, automobiles, lumber and heavy transportation equipment.

Critical to the plan's success, however, will be securing state money for new facilities, such as a refrigerated warehouse, rail improvements and dredging Maryland's extensive shipping channels.

The report also cites the need for more cost-efficient inland transportation service and more competitive labor rates.

"The real challenge is implementing it at this time," Maryland Secretary of Transportation David L. Winstead said yesterday as the plan was formally presented to the Maryland Port Commission.

Developing a strategic plan has been paramount for MPA Executive Director Tay Yoshitani, who left the job of deputy direc-tor at the port of Los Angeles last summer to take over the MPA.

It was written largely by M. Kathleen Broadwater, a maritime industry consultant who was hired early this year as director of strategic planning and development.

Boosting volume

The plan recommends that Baltimore focus on increasing container volume largely by targeting certain types of containerized cargo.

For instance, the report said Baltimore's location is more advantageous to container carriers in a north-south trade route, such as Latin American and through the Panama Canal to Southeast Asia, rather than those going to Europe or the Mideast.

It also recommends that the port of Baltimore increase breakbulk cargo by capitalizing on its location in the nation's fourth largest consumer market. It calls for Baltimore to become the dominant automobile port on the East Coast.

Currently, it shares that status with Jacksonville, Fla.

It also says Baltimore should double the amount of labor-intensive steel it handles and begin attracting new cargo such as fruit.

Port commission members yesterday praised the plan. "It reflects the realistic state of the business and our opportunities out there," said Mickey Miller.

And former U.S. Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, who serves as a consultant to the MPA, said: "This is the first time in my century that we've had a strategic plan."

While the port has had previous game plans, they lacked detail and specific goals, she said, and they failed to define Baltimore's goals in the context of the intense competition it faces from other ports.

Community backing

The plan also has been endorsed by many in the port community, though some have been apprehensive that the MPA intends to shift its focus away from containers, which represent 75 percent of the port's annual tonnage.

In 1995, North Atlantic ports handled 26.4 million tons on containerized cargo, with Baltimore capturing 15 percent of that.

While Baltimore's share of the North Atlantic container market has grown slightly since 1990, critical changes in the industry are likely to limit the port's ability to increase its share further, the report said.

With ships getting larger and larger, Baltimore is increasingly disadvantaged because of the time it takes ships to travel up the Chesapeake Bay and because of the shallowness of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal.

Breakbulk cargo moving through North Atlantic ports totaled 13.5 million tons in 1995, or half of the container market. Baltimore's share was roughly 15 percent of that, although the port handled a sizable share of some commodities such as roll-on, roll-off equipment.

Pub Date: 7/03/96

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