Port cargo tonnage fell in '96 Most of E. Coast off, but Hampton Roads had 6.1% increase

Baltimore decline is 7.4%

Loss of service from Maersk and Naverias is felt

Commerce

March 01, 1997|By Suzanne Wooton | Suzanne Wooton,SUN STAFF

General cargo moving through Maryland Port Administration terminals declined 7.4 percent last year, reflecting the loss of major shipping lines in Baltimore and an overall decline in business at North Atlantic ports.

According to the MPA, cargo fell 468,000 short tons from 6.3 million short tons in 1995 to 5.7 million short tons in 1996. The loss came primarily in containers as Maersk Line and Naverias Inc. abandoned most of their service here during the past 18 months. The decline in business translated into less work for the longshoremen who load and unload the cargo and others such as bay pilots.

Last year, the port handled 428,700 tons of containers compared with 466,800 tons in 1995. More than 70 percent of the business at the public terminals is concentrated in containers, the massive steel boxes carried on ships.

Nearly every other commodity, including steel, paper and automobiles, also showed declines. Automobiles, which traditionally have been a strong market for the port, dropped 15 percent last year, to 251,000 tons from 266,000 tons.

The decline in cargo halted a three-year growth spurt for the public terminals. Yet the downturn reflected a nationwide decline, with U.S. ports losing 3.4 percent of cargo during the first nine months of 1996, and those in the North Atlantic experiencing a 2.3 percent drop, according to the MPA.

While most East Coast ports experienced loss of cargo, some showed significant gains, typically at the expense of competing ports. Hampton Roads, Baltimore's rival in Virginia, saw a 6.1 percent increase in cargo over the previous year, with its total volume reaching 9.7 million tons.

Overall, the role of North Atlantic ports in the container market has declined dramatically in the past 15 years. In 1980, those ports handled nearly half of all container traffic in the United States. By 1995, that figure had declined to 28 percent.

"The role of all ports has diminished in the North Atlantic," Tay Yoshitani, executive director of the MPA, told a legislative committee this week.

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 the loss of more than 100 ships a year here.

The decline in container business has been the driving force behind the port's latest strategic plan, which calls for more aggressively pursuing break bulk cargo, such as steel, and other types of freight.

While business at Maryland's five public terminals has slowed considerably, the private terminals -- which largely handle bulk commodities, such as coal, grain and cement -- have continued to experience growth. In terms of total tonnage, the private facilities handle about 84 percent of all port-related cargo in Baltimore.

Pub Date: 3/01/97

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