The Port of Baltimore would certainly qualify to earn the Boy Scout merit badge for being prepared.
A full two years before the new locks of the Panama Canal finally opened early this summer, Baltimore’s Seagirt Marine Terminal was ready to handle the behemoth box ships those locks can accommodate. Indeed, as James J. White, executive director of the Maryland Port Administration, an agency of the Maryland Department of Transportation, told the American Journal of Transportation, the Port of Baltimore might even have been ready too early.
“We have been Panama Canal-ready for the past two years,” White said, noting that, when Panamanian officials initially announced their intention to complete the multibillion-dollar widening project by mid-2014, Maryland officials and partners geared all improvements to meet that schedule.
The Port of Baltimore was already in a favorable position, as it already had a 50-foot-deep channel, so the objective was to get a 50-foot-deep berthing area sufficient to handle the larger vessels, as well as container cranes big enough to work them.
By turning to a vanguard public-private partnership with Ports America Chesapeake LLC, the requisite enhancements were made in plenty of time without a tax drain on Marylanders.
“We realized during the recession in 2009 that the [Maryland] transportation trust fund, which is where we get our capital money to do terminal improvements, was not going to make the timeline for us to be big-ship-ready by 2014,” White said. “So we turned to the private sector. We met with several companies and we selected to move forward with Ports America, and it’s been a great marriage.
“We took the position that this is a partnership,” White continued. “It isn’t a situation where we just flip the keys over to a stevedore and get out of their way.
“We market with them,” he went on to say. “We review our key performance indicators, such as vessel productivity and gate turn times, and keep each other up to speed on the latest technology in the marine terminal. So we’re fully engaged with our third-party operator.”
Terminal infrastructure improvements at Seagirt are entirely Ports America’s responsibility, under the $1.3 billion, 50-year concession agreement inked in late 2009. Ports America has invested more than $500 million, about which White commented, “That’s money that didn’t have to come from the citizens here through taxation.”
The Seagirt facility, which originally opened in 1990, covers 284 acres and now boasts a 50-foot-deep containership berth plus 11 container cranes for working megavessels.
The Port of Baltimore and Ports America Chesapeake showed their mettle with the July call of Evergreen Marine Group’s Ever Lambent, with a capacity of 8,452 twenty-foot-equivalent container units. Five cranes efficiently worked the vessel, which was the first big ship transiting the expanded Panama Canal to call at Seagirt.
White – who began his maritime transportation career in the mid-’70s – recalled when a busy day meant two cranes working a ship, exuding, “Times have certainly changed!”
Interestingly enough, White said he does not believe the Port of Baltimore benefited from beating other East Coast ports in being ready to handle the larger containerships able to transit the expanded Panama Canal…
“I’d actually say it was a disadvantage,” White said. “We found situations where we had more cargo to put on ships that were sailing here to South Atlantic ports, and we couldn’t load all of our outbound freight because they couldn’t get into the South Atlantic harbors with additional cargo.
“As more and more ports get deeper, I think that is going to be critical to the big ship deployment to the U.S. East Coast,” he added. “If there’s a North Atlantic service with a really big ship that’s going to call New York or Norfolk and Baltimore and leave, it can take advantage of the 50 feet. But if you have a big ship and you load it to capacity and you’re going to another port which you can’t get into to discharge the inbound freight, what did you achieve?”
Times have changed, as White pointed out, and the industry now pivots around mega-alliances that operate fleets of 14,000-TEU vessels stacked with boxes from multiple ocean carrier companies.
In 2015, containerships of the 2M Alliance of super-carriers Maersk Line and Mediterranean Shipping Co. began services at the Port of Baltimore, helping lead the port to what officials point to as the largest percentage increase from 2014 to 2105 in containers handled among Mid-Atlantic ports, registering an 8 percent gain to a record 523,848 from 484,410. And now that alliance is expanding to include South Korea’s Hyundai Merchant Marine Co. Ltd.
“We’re real pleased with our results,” White smiled, noting that figures for the first part of 2016 are showing a continuation of the upward trend and offering expectations of further gains from expanding vessel-sharing agreements:
“As far as containers go, that’s probably where we’re going to have our largest increase in cargo,” White said. “I say that because, in the past, when we were trying to convince individual container lines, before vessel sharing, the ship was small in the trade lane and to come up the [Chesapeake] bay and out the bay, which is about eight hours in and eight hours out, for 500 containers on a small ship, they elected not to come here. Instead, they’d call in New York and truck it down, or go to Virginia and barge it up or truck it in.
“Now, with these alliances, it makes sense to bring the containers directly to where the consumers are,” White said, noting that Baltimore is in the heart of the third-largest U.S. consumer market and also is the closest East Coast port to Midwest markets, via efficient Interstate highway and rail links.
White offered as an example the CKYHE Alliance of COSCO Container Lines, “K” Line, Yang Ming Line, Hanjin Shipping and Evergreen Marine. In the pre-alliance days, one of those carriers might not want to bring its own ship to Baltimore to discharge 500 or 600 containers. But, if each of five alliance partners has several hundred boxes, it makes good sense to bring all those containers to Baltimore on one big ship.
White said he sees the Port of Baltimore benefiting as that joint approach of carriers continues to advance, commenting, “When that evolves, it’s going to be terrific for our container business.”