Bill to raise security at ports is in doubt

But 3 congressmen say dredge projects enjoy strong support

November 06, 2001|By Paul Adams | Paul Adams,SUN STAFF

Political support for dredging projects favored by the port of Baltimore remains high in Congress, but legislation aimed at increasing security at the nation's seaports faces difficulty getting passed this year, three members of Maryland's congressional delegation said yesterday.

The comments came as state transportation officials and maritime leaders met with Reps. Benjamin L. Cardin, Elijah E. Cummings and Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to rally political support for the port.

The congressional maritime forum attracted about 150 members of the port community and was billed as a follow-up to a similar event held in June to call attention to key port dredging projects, most of which recently won federal funds in a $50 million appropriations bill.

"What we're trying to do now is assess where our priorities should be," said Cardin, a Baltimore Democrat, referring to security and other issues affecting the port.

The event was held at the Masonville Marine Terminal and came as Congress debates separate measures to prevent terrorism attacks at the nation's 361 seaports and to stimulate the economy to prevent the loss of blue-collar jobs.

Despite the signing of several major shipping contracts in the past year, port officials acknowledged yesterday that the region's waterfront is beginning to feel the effects of a slowing economy.

"Actually, this year we were hoping to light some of the afterburners on cargo going through the port, but because of the downturn in the economy, everything is off," said James J. White, executive director of the Maryland Port Administration. "We've been able to maintain our cargo base only because we've signed those long-term contracts this year."

State transportation officials signed a 20-year agreement last spring with Scandinavian shipping line Wallenius Wilhelmsen, making it the biggest deal in the port's nearly 300-year history.

The state also secured a 10-year deal with Mediterranean Shipping Co. that will significantly boost container traffic. The two deals complemented a series of smaller agreements that will bring more autos and forest products such as paper through the port's public marine terminals in the years ahead.

White and other port leaders said the deals underscore the need to deepen the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, which provides ships a shortcut to the port of Baltimore from the north.

Transportation officials say a deeper canal will attract larger container ships, but the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in January shelved the roughly $40 million dredging project until the port proves it can attract enough cargo to justify the cost.

The recently approved appropriation did not include funds to dredge the canal. And Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat, Cardin and Ehrlich voiced support for the project yesterday.

"It's not going to be easy, but it's got to get done," said Ehrlich, a Baltimore County Republican.

But the effects of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks are slowing the pace of cargo growth at the port and focusing attention on lax security at some port facilities.

State officials said the port's strategic plan to attract niche cargoes remains on target despite the changing economy. And additional steps are being taken to improve security, they said.

Spread across miles of waterfront, the port's facilities include chemical tank farms and storage facilities that are protected in some areas by poorly maintained fencing and limited security measures.

Congressional testimony over the years has pointed out the potential for mischief by terrorists or others bent on damaging the nation's ports. For example, only about 3 percent of the millions of cargo containers entering U.S. ports annually are searched.

Maryland Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari said police patrols have been doubled at Baltimore port facilities, fence lines are being repaired and there is greater coordination among public and private security forces since the Sept. 11 attacks.

The state also has committed an unspecified amount of money to help pay for further security improvements, he said.

Help may come in the form of the Maritime Security Act, which is pending in Congress. But its passage this year remains questionable as the White House and Congress debate provisions in the legislation.

"We know that we have an equipment need, for example, X-ray equipment for searching [cargo] containers, which we currently don't have but makes sense for these times," Cardin said. "That's in the pipeline and we're trying to accelerate that so we can get it quicker."

That and other port security provisions could be rolled into a broader security bill, Cardin said, or parts of it may be included in a pending economic stimulus package. It's possible some of the measures could still be approved before year's end, he said.

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