As he drove through the Fort McHenry Tunnel for one of his last tours of the Baltimore marine terminals, Tay Yoshitani, departing executive director of the Maryland Port Administration, spotted the future of the state's maritime business in front of him, chained to a truck and bouncing around like Jello.
"Look at that. You see that back-and-forth movement?" Yoshitani said, interrupting himself to point to a Toyota Land Cruiser dangling on the back of an 18-wheeler full of new Toyotas. "That's been known to break an axle," he said. "That's good news. For us, that's really good news."
Good news for the port of Baltimore because automobile manufacturers prefer to keep their vehicles safely in the hull of a ship, rather than risk the kinds of cracks and dents that a few hundred miles on the highways and railways can inflict.
For Yoshitani, who leaves this week after three years of managing the state's five public marine terminals, it is the legacy on which he has staked much of the port's future.
He foresees a day when roll-on, roll-off cargo such as cars and trucks -- now 30 percent of the trade through Baltimore's public terminals -- grows to half the port's business.
Goods shipped in containers are landing in other cities because of economic and geographic factors that Maryland officials have little control over, he said. But Baltimore is second only to New York in the amount of automobiles handled in public ports, and it could become No. 1.
Behind that strategy is a geographic imperative of Baltimore's navigable waterways that is the reason for the local shipping industry's hard times and its trump card for the future. The city's proximity to the Midwest -- an advantage in the days when overland transportation rates were regulated -- is no longer worth a half-day's sail up the Chesapeake Bay for many of the world's container ships. But for ships carrying cargo such as automobiles, heavy machinery and farm equipment, perhaps it is.
"My successor has to really focus on that," Yoshitani said in an interview from his office high in the World Trade Center in the Inner Harbor.
"The container business is so big we can't turn our backs on it. We're never just going to walk away.
"But the bottom line is that we don't have the kind of impact or control in that business where we can count on it to sustain this port and continue to grow. The real growth of this port -- the sustainable growth -- has to come from noncontainerized cargo."
As he leaves for an assistant port director's position in Oakland, Calif., Yoshitani is being lauded by members of the local maritime industry for his aggressive management and innovation. The amount of cargo shipped through the public terminals -- about 6.1 million tons in 1997 -- held relatively steady during his three years as director, despite a continuing decline in the number of vessels calling on the port.
But the praise is hedged by reminders that a port director can do only so much in an increasingly competitive industry bent on consolidation, and in a city that is a 10-hour sail from the Atlantic Ocean.
The job is further complicated by the Maryland Port Administration's financial stake in container cargo -- the state's Seagirt Marine Terminal, a $220 million container facility opened in 1990, was not built to handle automobiles and machinery.
"I think he did a great job to the extent that he could. Hopefully we'll see more fruits of his labor," said Mike Watson, president of the Association of Maryland Pilots. "But the international marketplace has a lot to do with the success or failure of any port."
Douglas Wagner, president of International Longshoreman's Association Local 333, said, "I think Tay has done an outstanding job for the time that he's been here. It's a shame he can't stay longer. But, you know, the thing that affects this port more than anything else is our geography. No one can change that."
Yoshitani is realistic about how much anyone can accomplish managing a port that seems to defy the industry's "location, location, location" mantra.
Besides being far up the Chesapeake, Baltimore is also in the middle of the East Coast, meaning it will never be the first or last stop for a ship making calls in the Atlantic, will never be the fastest way to or from the eastern half of the nation.
"I'd love to move the port to Ocean City," Yoshitani said. "But, of course, the reality is we can only affect our industry position within the band of things we can control.
"Things are not all gloom and doom. We have to be realistic, but the port is in a position to experience growth."
During Yoshitani's tenure, that has meant pursuing specialized cargo for which geography is either an advantage or doesn't matter. Container lines shipping to and from South America, for instance, might not consider a trip up the bay much of a detour.