Seagirt Terminal slips to competition

Operating less than half capacity amid location, rail limits

August 06, 2008|By Laura McCandlish | Laura McCandlish,Sun reporter

Eighteen years after its opening was hailed as the beginning of a renaissance for the port of Baltimore, the Seagirt Marine Terminal is operating at less than half capacity, despite longtime state efforts to bolster traffic at the only port terminal that exclusively handles lucrative container cargo.

Containerized cargo remains the port's bread and butter, accounting for 65 percent of the business at Maryland's public terminals. But Seagirt continues to lose ground to its East Coast competitors, as container volume growth in Norfolk, New York and Savannah has far outpaced Baltimore.

A perennial obstacle to the Maryland Port Administration's quest to boost business there is one it can't change: Baltimore's inland location. Calling on Baltimore requires a day's sail up the Chesapeake Bay, costing time, pilot fees and increasingly expensive fuel.

But Seagirt is also beset by structural problems that port officials are seeking to resolve:

*While double-stacking containers on trains has become the industry standard for efficiency reasons, only single-stacked cars can move out of Seagirt.

*Seagirt lacks a 50-foot-deep berth and the cranes to accommodate the larger vessels coming from Asia, an asset its chief competitors in Norfolk and New York already have.

*Some 66 precious waterfront acres at Seagirt are occupied by CSX Corp.'s intermodal station, where it mostly transfers trucked-in domestic containers. Only 10 percent of containers handled there come in by ship, though the facility was built to support international trade.

Hiring a private contractor to run Seagirt under a long-term lease is one possible avenue the state could pursue by mid-2009. The operator would assume complete control of Seagirt - the berths, cranes, containers, asphalt, everything but the land itself - and cough up millions for projects that the state feels it can't afford.

"We'd say, 'Here's the keys: you operate it for 30 years and continue to improve the facility so you can continue to handle the ships that operate there,' " said James J. White, the port administration's executive director. "We have to create an environment that's better than other ports so the ship owners want to come here."

Without improvements, the port could lose existing business. If Seagirt doesn't gain the $130 million deeper berth and taller container-lifting cranes, Taiwanese-owned Evergreen Marine Corp. could back out of its new 10-year contract with the MPA after five years. Evergreen, Seagirt's No. 2 carrier and only direct line to Asia, wants to be able to bring in the bigger ships that will be passing through the widened Panama Canal by 2014, as capacity at congested West Coast ports maxes out.

"The challenge for Baltimore is to get ready in time to make it worth the shipping lines' time to bring that big ship in," said John M. Stokes, executive director of Ports America, an arm of AIG Global Investment Group that bought P&O Ports from the Dubai government in March 2007. Ports America currently operates Seagirt under a $41.6 million one-year contract extension.

Reducing the cost of piloting up the bay and gaining the ability to double-stack trains headed to the Midwest would also give Geneva-based Mediterranean Shipping Co. the incentive to bring in more containers, said Capt. Lorenzo Di Casagrande, chief of Baltimore operations for Seagirt's biggest user.

The state is pushing to relocate CSX's transfer facility at Seagirt, a move the railroad supports. CSX transfers a dwindling number of containers there.

"Moving out of Seagirt would really benefit the domestic cargo that doesn't need to be at the port," said Adam Bridges, vice president of marketing for CSX Intermodal. "Until the port perhaps builds a new facility, the Seagirt facility does have the challenge of not being fully double-stack cleared. They have two strikes against them."

For more than a decade, the state and CSX have quibbled about how to divide the costs of gaining clearances for double-stacked trains. Neither side wants to pay the $1 billion it could take to increase clearance in Baltimore's Howard Street tunnel, the chief impediment.

With its Seagirt contract expiring in November, the Jacksonville, Fla.-based railroad plans to move its container transfer station south to Jessup, where CSX already operates an automobile terminal. The Jessup move would dodge the Howard Street Tunnel, allowing double-stacked rail cars to move south to Washington and then west. Containers from Seagirt could be trucked down to Jessup, CSX said.

If the port administration proceeds with a new container terminal south at Cox Creek about 2020, double-stacked trains could eventually be loaded there onto CSX's dockside Marley Neck branch, White said.

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