The world is knocking at Baltimore's door

Maritime potential: Changes in shipping world could send cargo to a port that's ready.

November 15, 1999

LABOR PEACE. A new railroad. Upgraded dockside facilities.

Perhaps never before have so many factors been working in favor of Baltimore's port.

Here's another to complement the list: Changes in the shipping world are swinging Baltimore's way.

A new era of jumbo ships could bring more containers here after a decline. The surprising near-victory of Baltimore in a bidding contest for a huge container-ship contract alerted international maritime executives to the port's potential.

Baltimore's great advantage, its 50-foot shipping channel, nearly proved decisive last spring in the Maersk-Sea/Land consortium's search for an East Coast base for its new super-sized container ships.

Such "post-panamax" vessels, too wide to squeeze through the Panama Canal, are revolutionizing the economics of ocean transport.

There's not enough cargo to fill all the maritime world's ships. So shipping lines are reducing the number of ports of call.

You'd think this news would devastate Baltimore. Quite the opposite. That's because shipping is such a narrow-margin business that the remaining lines are ordering super-ships to pare costs and prices.

These behemoths are wider, broader, deeper and capable of carrying twice the containers of any ship that ever called at Baltimore. But they have no trouble navigating the 50-foot-deep channel up the Chesapeake to Baltimore's docks.

New ships usually are first put into service on the longest routes -- East Asia to Europe and the West Coast of America. Only later do they cross the Atlantic, as older cargo vessels are laid up. That is starting to happen.

Need for deep channels

Maersk-Sea/Land this summer chose Port Elizabeth in Newark Bay, over Baltimore, despite the narrow Kill van Kull approach channel that may never be able to accommodate fully loaded jumbo container ships.

Since that decision, Maersk has been negotiating to buy out its partner, CSX, which played a pivotal role in rejecting Baltimore's bid.

Maersk-Sea/Land may yet take a second look at the port with the alluring 50-foot channel as it tries to shave costs and make profits with its huge ships on the North Atlantic trade route.

Maersk's competitors, meanwhile, have been alerted to Baltimore's newfound advantages and have been discussing possibilities with port officials here.

The main appeal is that deep approach channel with a soft, sandy bottom.

Only Norfolk and Halifax, Nova Scotia, among North Atlantic ports can match it. Land transport from the congested Hampton Roads docks is not as good as Baltimore's. Halifax is far from major markets.

Other ports may promise to deepen channels, as the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey did to keep Maersk. But that is a long way from achieving this difficult engineering feat, especially when it requires dynamiting through solid bedrock.

Baltimore's task is to maintain the depth it has from the harbor south to the Atlantic, deepen one or more public berths to 50 feet, and deepen the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal.

Those steps could help bring Baltimore back as a container port in an emerging era of bigger ships.

Looking to South America

The growth of South American economies and trade, meanwhile, creates exciting opportunities.

Formerly protectionist economies have greatly liberalized trade and encouraged foreign investment. The June summit of European Union and Latin American governments in Rio de Janeiro, promoting their trade and other relations behind the back of the United States, was an eye-opener. Chile is trading heavily with Japan.

Baltimore is a natural for trade with South America, which produced 22 percent of the port's tonnage in 1998.

That consisted of forest products, particularly wood pulp, from Brazil, and manufactured products from several countries, including auto parts bound for Detroit by rail.

Capitalizing on this trend, Mediterranean Shipping Co. will begin a new weekly service between Baltimore and the western coast of South America Nov. 26.

As these Latin economies expand, so should trade through Baltimore's port.

Broadening the North American Free Trade Agreement to the rest of the hemisphere, as proposed by President Clinton, would stimulate this commerce. In part it would substitute South American for Asian manufacture of products that already are being imported to the United States.

In future congressional struggles, a vote to give Mr. Clinton and his successors fast-track negotiating authority for trade deals with South America would be a vote for the port of Baltimore.

Asian markets grow

Trade potential between Asia and East Coast ports also has increased. But only part of this is likely to be permanent.

Troubles at West Coast maritime terminals forced lines to divert ships from Asian markets through the Suez Canal to New York and other East Coast harbors, including Baltimore. Job actions by the historically militant International Longshore and Warehouse Union and by independent truckers constitute one problem that is likely to persist on West Coast docks.

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