By Donald C. Fry
By virtually every measure of business, the Port of Baltimore is heading for a record year. So is BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport.
Both operate in extremely competitive business environments and were able to strengthen their competitiveness during the recent recession. As a result, the Baltimore region’s port and its airport are now significant drivers of business growth in Maryland as our state emerges on the other side of the recession.
The details of their success stories are instructive for business advocates and policy makers alike. They feature smart strategy, recognition of competitive opportunities and a major common element – infrastructure investment for future growth.
At Baltimore’s port, general cargo business through its public terminals has increased 10 percent through the first three quarters of 2012, Gov. Martin O’Malley announced recently. Overall, more than 30 million tons of foreign commerce in the form of general and bulk cargo had crossed the port’s public and private docks by October 1 – an overall six percent increase so far in 2012, according to state data.
This kind of volume puts the port on pace for a record year of cargo handling. The previous record year was 2008 – prior to the recession.
The port’s surge is not an accident. It reflects a strategic focus by public and private port managers on leveraging Baltimore’s strengths – including its inland location and a stable, service-driven waterfront workforce – to build value for shippers in key niche cargo markets.
Today, Baltimore is the leading U.S. port for automobile cargo, roll-on-roll-off cargo, imported forest products and for three major categories of imported bulk commodity cargo. The port generates more than 40,000 jobs and more than $3 billion in direct and indirect wages and consumption.
Meanwhile, the port’s enviable post-recession surge is likely to continue because of both public and private investment in infrastructure to take full advantage of major opportunities on the horizon, nationally recognized port expert and economist Dr. John C. Martin, president of Martin Associates, told members of the Greater Baltimore Committee at its recent Transportation Summit in Baltimore.
Investment in port-related infrastructure – including a 50-foot berth and new, bigger cranes at Seagirt Marine Terminal as part of the state’s partnership with Ports America Chesapeake, and planned nearby distribution enhancements such as CSX’s intermodal National Gateway project – will make Baltimore a leading competitor to handle increasing east-coast container cargo traffic headed this way in 2014 and beyond. That’s when super-sized container ships will begin calling on Atlantic ports after coming through a widened Panama Canal.
Baltimore is poised to take full advantage of business opportunities related to the canal widening and to recent growth of major distribution centers near eastern ports, Martin said.
He noted Baltimore has become the most cost-effective port for trucked cargo bound for a massive inland market that stretches west to Columbus, Ohio; as far north as Chautauqua County, N.Y., and southwest along the I-81 corridor to Tazewell and Washington counties in Virginia.
“Baltimore is very cost-effectively positioned to serve those markets,” said Martin.
Baltimore’s growth in containerized cargo handled between 2011 and 2012 exceeded both Norfolk and New York, he noted.
Meanwhile, 15 miles to the south, BWI Marshall Airport is experiencing record volumes of passengers and an air cargo business that increased 4.5 percent in 2011, when the nation as a whole suffered a 1.5 percent decline in air cargo, Maryland Aviation Administration’s executive director Paul Wiedefeld told the GBC Transportation Summit audience.
Airport management built operational strategies around the facility’s location between the Baltimore and D.C. markets, with an emphasis on customer service for both travelers and airline companies around an “easy come, easy go” brand, Wiedefeld said.
The airport’s strategic focuses have ranged from aggressive efforts to shorten the security-driven passenger-screening process to significantly upgrading terminal restaurants, concessions and amenities.
Two significant infrastructure projects are at the heart of BWI Marshall’s efforts to position itself for additional growth – widening of Concourse C and construction of a connector between concourses B and C, scheduled to open in Spring 2013; and $350 million in major runway improvements, including repaving the entire airfield.
BWI Marshall Airport operations generate, either directly or indirectly, 93,000 jobs and $5.6 billion in business revenue, according to state data. The 12,000 direct jobs generated at the airport make it one of the top employment generators in the region.
The Port of Baltimore and BWI Marshall Airport are noteworthy examples of government agencies and the private-sector working, and investing, together in a manner that produces a fundamentally important outcome to the state and its citizens – improved competitiveness and strong economic growth.
In a state where policymakers seem frozen into place when it comes to larger issues of funding transportation infrastructure, these two transportation agencies offer compelling examples of the value of investing in it as a prerequisite for competitiveness.