NICHE CARGO, it's called. Forest products, autos, heavy equipment. That's where the port of Baltimore should focus its attention, according to a carefully devised strategic plan announced four years ago.
The strategy is beginning to pay off.
Baltimore's port, a key economic engine for this region, is No. 1 in the nation in roll-on/roll-off cargo. It handles more wood pulp, aluminum imports and raw sugar imports than any other U.S. harbor. It's now the port of choice for magazine-quality paper, generating more jobs and spinoff economic value.
Meanwhile, auto shipments through the port continue to rise with the opening of a $20 million processing terminal this fall.
Things are looking up on Baltimore's docks.
Even on the dredging front, there is progress. Congress ignored the obstructionist tactics of Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest and approved nearly $60 million for port projects, including the last federal payment to straighten the dangerous Tolchester Channel, which is a disaster waiting to happen.
Equally encouraging was a study from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that strongly recommended this navigational improvement.
With longer ships using the upper-bay approach to the port, straightening the S-shaped Tolchester Channel is imperative. Pilots must make five course corrections in three miles, sometimes changing directions before completing the earlier turn. In winter, such maneuvering through ice, sleet and wind can be treacherous.
Other good news may be on the way. Port officials continue talks with Wallenius-Wilhelmsen Lines, the world's leader in roll-on/roll-off cargo, about making Baltimore its load center. The state's willingness to make a significant investment in needed facilities could be a major factor in sealing such a deal.
Still lacking is agreement on where to dump the port's future dredged material. While this poses no immediate threat, state officials need to find an acceptable solution in the next few years. Otherwise, shipping lines may think twice before making a long-term commitment.
Geography, which worked against Baltimore over the past two decades, now seems to favor the port that is closest to Midwestern markets. With improved rail links and fast interstate connections, Baltimore stands to benefit from this new trend.