Big-ship-serving Port of Baltimore looks beyond gates for more progress

By: | Issue #654 | at 08:00 AM | Channel(s): Ports & Terminals  Ports  

The Port of Baltimore’s Seagirt Marine Terminal offers 50-foot-deep berths along a deep channel.
The Port of Baltimore’s Seagirt Marine Terminal offers 50-foot-deep berths along a deep channel.

Already offering 50-foot depths along its channel and highly productive berths, the Port of Baltimore is looking to advances beyond its gates to help it further benefit from its propitious position as the closest containerport to Midwest markets.
One of the two off-port developments seen as promising the greatest benefits is less than 10 miles northwest of the Port of Baltimore’s container terminal, while the other, oddly enough, is nearly 200 miles to the northeast.

The nearby project entails increasing the clearance of the Howard Street Tunnel beneath downtown Baltimore, while the faraway one, also a clearance endeavor, involves the raising of the roadbed of the bridge between Bayonne, New Jersey, and New York City’s Staten Island.

The two undertakings were pinpointed by Richard Scher, the Maryland Port Administration’s director of communications, in conversations with the American Journal of Transportation.

Scher said making the antiquated tunnel capable of accommodating CSX trains with double-stacked containers “would be quite a game-changer for us,” while, he said, the just-raised Bayonne Bridge roadbed should translate to even more calls for Baltimore on mega-containership rotations that include Port of New York & New Jersey terminals now accessible to the extra-big boxships.

First, the tunnel – a structure considered innovative when it was built in the 1890s. It’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“That’s obviously a very key project for us,” Scher said, noting that Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan has become heavily engaged in securing tunnel retrofit funding while the Maryland Department of Transportation is working with CSX on the best solution.

A recent piece of good news on this front is that the projected cost for the tunnel work has gone down significantly from earlier estimates ranging from $1 billion to as much as a whopping $4 billion.

The cost now is projected at less than $500 million, and, although U.S. Department of Transportation grant programs have undergone recent changes since a June submittal for funding, a new proposal, due Nov. 2, is expected to be for a similarly comparatively low amount.

Rob Doolittle, assistant vice president for media and corporate communications at CSX, told AJOT, “The proposal we had submitted in partnership with the Maryland Department of Transportation substantially reduced the anticipated cost of increasing the clearance in the tunnel, to approximately $445 million.

“The plan would use engineering techniques proven effective on some of the 62 clearance projects undertaken as part the National Gateway initiative, which opened new double-stack-cleared shipping lanes between mid-Atlantic ports and Midwest consumer markets, to remove the last obstacle remaining to double-stack intermodal service along the I-95 Corridor,” Doolittle added.

CSX trains could then efficiently speed double-stacked containers directly from the Port of Baltimore to the Class I’s Northwest Ohio Intermodal Terminal, opened in 2011 in coincidentally named North Baltimore, Ohio, as well as other inland points.

Regarding hopes for federal funding for the tunnel project, Scher said he would apply “the old adage of cautiously optimistic.”

As for the Bayonne Bridge, although it is a long way up I-95 from Baltimore, Scher said, “Raising of the roadbed will further benefit us at the Port of Baltimore. We’re pretty excited about what’s on the horizon.”

Whereas the entire project is expected to take until 2019 to finish, a navigational clearance of 215 feet (compared with the former 155-foot height) was achieved at the end of June of this year, facilitating more access to Port of New York & New Jersey terminals for bigger boxships and, according to Scher, more calls with greater volumes at Baltimore’s Seagirt Marine Terminal for alliance behemoths deployed on East Coast itineraries.

Last year’s completion of Panama Canal expansion has been, according to Scher, “certainly the big reason” container activity at Seagirt is rising to unprecedented levels.

The Port of Baltimore handled a record 538,567 containers in 2016, up 3 percent from the prior high mark, established in 2015, and the port’s container count thus far in 2017 is up 8 percent compared with the same point into 2016, putting Baltimore well on course to set another record.

Already handling boxships with capacities of as many as 14,000 twenty-foot-equivalent container units, Baltimore is one of just four ports on the U.S. East Coast with sufficient channel depths and infrastructure to accommodate the super-sized container vessels – the others being New York/New Jersey, Virginia and Miami.

And the Port of Baltimore has been very proficient in its handling of these big ships, moving containers at a rate of 71 moves per hour per berth, putting it No. 1 in such efficiency rankings for a third straight year.

Key to the success of the Seagirt operation is a 50-year public-private partnership with Ports America Chesapeake, which constructed the 50-foot-deep berthing area and funded four super-post-Panamax cranes.

The 284-acre Seagirt facility is to get a further boost with development of container storage and perhaps other cargo-related uses on a 70-acre adjoining tract purchased in May by the Maryland Port Administration.

That $55 million acquisition marks the first significant cargo-related MPA land purchase since 1987, when it bought the property now developed as the Fairfield Marine Automobile Terminal.

In addition to being a major hub for containerized cargo, the Port of Baltimore has for six consecutive years handled more automobiles than any other U.S. port.
In addition to being a major hub for containerized cargo, the Port of Baltimore has for six consecutive years handled more automobiles than any other U.S. port.

The Fairfield acquisition has worked out quite well for the Port of Baltimore, which in 2016 celebrated its sixth consecutive year of handling more vehicles than any other U.S. port, moving 732,000 cars and light trucks, and the vehicle count so far this year is up 2 percent.

Yet another notable recent development for the Port of Baltimore was the signing of its longtime top forest products customer, Finland-based UPM, to a 10-year contract extension, while, on the cruise front, the port also has extended its agreements with Carnival Cruise Lines and Royal Caribbean International.

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For more than a quarter of a century, Paul Scott Abbott has been writing and shooting images for the American Journal of Transportation, applying four decades of experience as an award-winning journalist. A graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, with a master’s magna cum laude from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Abbott has served as president of chapters of the Propeller Club of the United States, Florida Public Relations Association and Society of Professional Journalists. Abbott honed his skills on several daily newspapers, including [em]The Cincinnati Enquirer, The Richmond (Va.) News Leader, Albuquerque Journal and (South Florida) Sun-Sentinel, and was editor and publisher of The County Line, a weekly newspaper he founded in suburban Richmond, Va.[/em] A native Chicagoan, he is a member of American Mensa and an ever-optimistic fan of the Chicago Cubs.