Assessment of port traffic in '08 is generally positive

January 29, 2009|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,

Business in the port of Baltimore held up reasonably well in 2008 despite declines in certain sectors of cargo during the second half of the year, according to the Maryland Port Administration.

Even as the economy sank into an ever-deepening recession, the port posted gains of 9 percent in pulp products and 4 percent in roll-on/roll-off, or ro/ro, cargo from July to November, compared with the corresponding period of 2007. Ro/ro cargo largely is made up of construction and farm equipment.

The gains were offset by declines in shipments of autos, down 2 percent, and paper, down 4 percent. Container traffic remained flat.

Appearing before a General Assembly committee this week, James J. White, executive director of the port, presented a generally upbeat assessment of traffic on the docks last year even as he warned of potential downturns in late 2008 and early this year.

While numbers are not final for 2008, officials said they expect to break the previous year's records for the amount and dollar value of general cargo handled at the state's public terminals.

The port chief said port traffic remained strong through the first half of 2008 but was flat for the July-September quarter. That, he said, is "probably as good as it gets" for the next several quarters.

When figures for the October-December quarter are finalized, White said, he expects to see declines of less than 10 percent in most lines of business. He said he hopes the ro/ro figure remain flat.

"With diversification of cargos, we'll do better than the other East Coast ports," he said. "I know we're all going down. I don't think there's a port on the East Coast that's going to have a better '09 than '08."

White said Baltimore is holding on to the No. 1 spot nationally in handling of ro/ro cargo, trucks, imported forest products and gypsum.

The port administrator reported a "booming" business in cruise traffic; the state hosts four cruise lines now, compared with one in 2007. He said the port would triple last year's total of 27 sailings. That business, he said, had an economic impact of $63 million and produced 700 jobs.

However, the port expects about a 20 percent decline in auto traffic. White said troubled Chrysler, which shipped 200,000 vehicles out of Baltimore in fiscal 2008, expects to ship only about 85,000 in the current budget year.

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