Cargo carrier weighs making Baltimore hub

Wallenius Wilhelmsen in early stages of talks on $10 million project

The port

November 06, 1999|By Sean Somerville | Sean Somerville,SUN STAFF

Port of Baltimore officials said yesterday that they are in the early stages of negotiations to build a hub for one of the world's largest cargo transportation carriers.

If such a hub is built, Wallenius Wilhelmsen, the world's largest operator of automobile-carrying and "roll-on, roll-off" cargo ships, will consolidate its North Atlantic operations in Baltimore.

The project would cost about $10 million and cover about 50 acres, with the potential to expand to 150 acres, according to the state's draft Consolidated Transportation Program. No site has been chosen.

The hub would mean an increase in business from the company, which is by far the port's largest roll-on, roll-off customer, said Judy Scioli, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Port Administration. "We value their business and want more of it," she said. "If they are going to build a hub, we want it to be built here."

The company said it is also considering Norfolk, Va., as a site for the hub. Building the hub elsewhere could mean less business for Baltimore.

"There are many, many issues yet to be resolved," said Chris Connor, executive vice president of Wallenius Wilhelmsen. "So it's far from being concluded one way or another."

The company was formed by the merger July 1 of Oslo-based Wilhelmsen Lines and Stockholm-based Wallenius Lines, each of which sent more than 100 ships through Baltimore annually and ranked among the port's largest customers.

As part of the deal, Wilhelmsen moved its North American headquarters out of Baltimore and the two companies combined their U.S. headquarters in Woodcliff Lake, N.J. Twenty-five to 35 Baltimoreans who did not want to relocate lost their jobs, Connor said.

The idea of building a hub made sense because the company operates at Dundalk and Locust Point terminals, he said, adding, "When two companies of our size come together, it stands to reason that you look at everything and anything in order to gain some efficiency in your business."

Between January and the end of October, the company accounted for 174 ship calls to Baltimore. The closest competitor accounts for 52 ship calls a year.

In the draft construction program, the port estimated that the project would cost $2 million in 2001, $5 million in 2002 and $3 million in 2003.

The stakes are high for the port because automobile and roll-on, roll-off cargo -- "ro-ro cargo," as it is called -- has emerged in recent years as one of its strengths. The safest way to move such items is by ship, and Baltimore's inland location means the cargo spends less time on trains and trucks. The port moved more than 500,000 tons of ro-ro cargo last year, making it the nation's largest such handler.

"The port of Baltimore currently has more ro-ro market share than any other port in the U.S.," port officials said in the draft transportation program, which is intended to tell public officials about possible projects. "This project has very positive economic impact."

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