Port's new bridge bets on gains in cruising

$2.9 million device shields passengers from elements

  • These vacationers embarking on a Royal Caribbean cruise to Bermuda at the Port of Baltimore were the first to board via a state-of-the-art, ADA accessible boarding bridge, commissioned by the Maryland Port Administration. The enclosed walkway, built by TEAM of Barcelona, Spain, has heating and air-conditioning, and is constructed to withstand 90 mph winds.
These vacationers embarking on a Royal Caribbean cruise to… (Baltimore Sun photo by Amy…)
April 11, 2011|By Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun

For Baltimore, with its soaring ambition to be the top cruise port in the Mid-Atlantic, those last few steps from the terminal to the ship were a bummer.

Passengers boarding the floating pleasure palace for which they were paying big bucks first had to cross a 40-year-old gangway that, in the words of travel agent Scott Bobus, "resembled something from 'Pirates of the Caribbean.' " After walking through whatever weather Maryland decided to throw at them, passengers would then enter the ship through the equivalent of a hotel's service entrance.

Not anymore. The passengers who boarded Royal Caribbean's Enchantment of the Seas at the South Locust Point cruise terminal on Monday entered the ship via a gleaming new passenger bridge, custom-built in Spain for $2.9 million. Enclosed, heated or air-conditioned, the bridge led directly into the glitzy seaborne hotel's "lobby."

As the cruise-bound throng boarded, state officials celebrated the newest in a series of improvements intended to turn Baltimore into a first-class cruise port. It was the first day of official use for the new boarding bridge, which had been undergoing testing for three weeks.

"What this says is we're very serious about making this a premier cruise terminal," said Maryland Transportation Secretary Beverley K. Swaim-Staley.

The new boarding bridge serves the same function as the piers that lead from the boarding gates at an airport onto jetliners — only it's much bigger. The new bridge, built by TEAM of Barcelona, measures 471 feet in a series of gently graded ramps that comply with federal disabilities law. The walkway telescopes in order to precisely reach the ship's gateway portal.

Port officials concede the bridge wasn't cheap, but they insist it will more than earn its purchase price. David Thomas, director of port operations, said the bridge is expected to last for at least 20 years. And if the port does nothing more in future years than match its expected 112 cruises this year, the bridge will serve more than 2,200 cruises and 4.6 million passengers.

Baltimore has come a long way as a departure point for cruises in what was until recently largely an industrial port. Only six years ago, cruise traffic was limited to the few dozen cruise ships that would call each year between the spring and fall to pick up passengers from a shed amid the containers at the Dundalk Marine Terminal.

But since 2006, passengers have boarded at the new terminal at South Locust Point, where the gargantuan ships are easily visible to motorists passing on Interstate 95. The business began to take off here in 2009, when Royal Caribbean and Carnival — drawn in part by the easy access from I-95 — went to a year-round cruise schedule.

The number of ships calling at Baltimore has grown each year since then, and port officials are confident the business will continue to expand. Swaim-Staley said the cruise business brings an estimated $90 million in economic activity to the region each year.

"The sky's the limit in terms of what we can continue to do here," Swaim-Staley said. "We benefit from an ideal location."

Richard Powers, the Maryland Port Administration's director of marketing, said other cruise lines approached him at a recent trade show to discuss adding Baltimore to their schedules. Meanwhile, Powers said, Baltimore's chief Mid-Atlantic rivals for cruises have been lagging, with Philadelphia getting out of the business and Norfolk, Va., too far from large population centers to draw many passengers.

Now, Powers said, port officials believe they might have to build a second cruise terminal — perhaps at the underused North Locust Point — as South Locust Point approaches its capacity.

But until then, passengers will reach their ships via the new bridge, which was shipped to Baltimore for assembly this winter.

Don Mesecher, TEAM's project director for North America, said the bridge is a unique design because in Baltimore — unlike other ports — cruise passengers begin boarding from ground level. He said the bridge is designed so that it remains in place even as the ship rises and falls with the tide. Mounted on wheels, it can be moved up or down the pier, though it is expected to stay mostly in the same place at the end of a covered walkway.

Thomas said the new bridge was custom-built to the specifications of Baltimore's port. He said it can be used in winds of up to 50 mph. The old gangway had to be detached from the ships when winds reached 25 mph.

"We think we can handle any ship that's going to be here," Thomas said.

michael.dresser@baltsun.com

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