Center Maryland: The Port of Baltimore: Riding high and ready for “Post Panamax”

Don Fry headshot - July 2015

Editor’s note: This commentary was published on CenterMaryland.org on September 4, 2015.

By Donald C. Fry

Earlier this week the state announced that the Port of Baltimore had a record-breaking fiscal year for moving general cargo from its public marine terminals – 9.7 million tons. That’s more than at any other time in its history.

The record-setting number underscores yet again what a gem of an economic engine we are lucky to have in the Baltimore region. The port generates about 14,630 direct jobs, not to mention about $300 million in state and local taxes.

Without a robust high-performing port, it is doubtful that Baltimore would be the dynamic city it is for business or have the diverse jobs base that it enjoys today. It may not be a stretch to say the port touches every Marylander’s life in some way or other.

It’s not by happenstance that the port is riding high these days. Nor that it’s ready for the new shipping business that will open up between Asia and the United State’s East Coat next year when the expanded Panama Canal is expected to open.

This could be a pivotal movement in the shipping business and Baltimore is very well positioned for any business that might come its way.

Granted, the regional and national economies have mended since the recession and that is certainly contributing to a healthier cargo business for the port. But port officials, to their credit, are always looking ahead to trends and turning points so they can maintain the ever elusive “competitive edge.”

So there’s been a lot of strategic planning and forward thinking behind those recent record-breaking numbers that were announced this week – and positioning the port for the future.

For one, port executives and administrators made a strategic push to ensure port operations are highly efficient – especially when it comes to turning cargo around, whether loading or offloading from ships.

In fact, the Port of Baltimore is considered one of the most efficient ports in the U.S. when it comes to moving cargo.

That’s a big deal and creates a competitive advantage because companies utilizing the port for shipping can get products to and from markets faster – in turn helping with their own operations, reducing costs and increasing their bottom line.

This is just one of the reasons the port has emerged as such a success story – not just for Baltimore, but throughout the port industry itself.

Another is the long-range thinking, research and planning that have gone into protecting and opening the shipping channel in the Chesapeake Bay, which cargo vessels use to get to and from the Atlantic Ocean to the Port of Baltimore.

Most of us who live in Maryland and cross the Chesapeake Bay Bridge on the way to the Eastern Shore or the beaches probably don’t give it a second thought when we see in the distance massive cargo vessels anchored off of Annapolis or lumbering down the bay.

But those cargo ships – 2,000 a year – come up a shipping channel, which serves as a marine highway to and from the Port of Baltimore. From an economic perspective, it is likely one of the most important “highways” in the state.

When you look at the channel marked on a regional map depicting Maryland, Virginia and Delaware, the picture you get is not so much a highway but an artery. It’s a vital artery that leads into the heart and health of our state and regional economy.

Without this artery, many large cargo container ships would not be able to reach the Port of Baltimore for lack of a deep-water channel for smooth sailing.

A critical challenge that is facing all ports is an emerging industry trend where the current fleet of cargo ships, albeit large in size and capacity, is giving way to even larger container vessels.

Called “Post Panamax” ships, these vessels are massive. They can be more than 1,000 feet long, or roughly the size of an aircraft carrier. They also sit 50- feet deep in the water.

But Maryland is fortunate, thanks to the long-range planning and foresight of the Port of Baltimore and state officials, the 136-mile channel, which runs from the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay where it meets the Atlantic up to the Port of Baltimore, has maintained a 50-foot depth for about 20 years.

The State of Maryland, Port of Baltimore and Ports America entered into a successful public private partnership that also added a 50’ berth at Seagirt Marine Terminal to handle these giant new ships, as well as new cranes which can get cargo on and off of ships in a more expeditious fashion.

As a result, the Port of Baltimore is “Post Panamax” ship ready. In fact, it is one of only two ports on the East Coast ready to handle the next wave of large shipping vessels placing it strategically ahead of other port cities on the East Coast that are scrambling to catch up.

We often complain that all too often our local, county, and state governments do not have the foresight to plan ahead for a new trend or industry change and we either miss out on the opportunity or are always playing catch up.

In this instance nothing could be further from the truth. Elected officials, government leaders and private sector partners have come together to position the Port of Baltimore for the future. And they have done so ahead of the competitors.

It’s a good example of how things should work. Let’s hope that we approach other economic growth opportunities with the same vision and strategic plan that ensures economic competitiveness for those industries that serve as the growth engines of our state.

Donald C. Fry is president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee and chairman of the Hire One Youth initiative. He is a regular contributor to Center Maryland.  

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