- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 11, 2001

A new generation of big ships expected to carry cargo to and from the East Coast by the end of the decade is bringing hopes of more commerce through the Port of Baltimore but concern about more trucks on the area's highways.

The Port of Baltimore, with its 50-foot-deep channel and computerized dock equipment, is one of four ports on the East Coast that can handle the big ships being built at South Korean and Danish shipyards.

"We compete with all other ports," said Judy Scioli, Port of Baltimore spokeswoman. "Accommodating those ships is something we can do."

Currently, most of the big container ships can carry 3,000 to 4,800 semitrailer-size containers. The biggest that uses the Port of Baltimore is an Evergreen Maritime Corp. ship that carries 4,300 containers.

The new generation of what the industry calls "huge ships" or "megaships" will be able to carry as many as 9,000 containers.

Forty-one of them are operating on long-haul trips between Europe and the Far East or U.S. West Coast. Another 69 are on order by shipping companies such as Denmark's Maersk SeaLand and Taiwan's Evergreen Maritime, the world's two biggest shipping companies.

Other East Coast ports with channels deep enough to handle them are at Norfolk, and Halifax, Nova Scotia. The Port of New York-New Jersey will be able to handle the biggest ships when dredging operations are completed. The Port Authority voted last month to spend $2.3 billion on dredging, although a completion date is uncertain.

"As time goes on, the Atlantic trade will see them," Miss Scioli said. "We don't know when, but we are planning for the fact they will come in time." Her best guess was the end of this decade for regular Baltimore arrivals.

In previous years, shippers often warehoused their cargo near the ports. The ships, which were smaller, arrived in steady streams of shorter intervals.

Now, however, shippers try to pack more cargo onto bigger ships to reduce costs. They also rely more on "just-in-time delivery" that requires freight to be unloaded and delivered as soon as it arrives.

As a result, the largest ships act as beehives of activity as trucks and trains line up to accept cargo. For travelers in the area, the arrival of the biggest ships can be a prelude to traffic bottlenecks as trucks compete for lanes on Interstate 95 and trains block railroad crossings on connecting roads.

In addition, the Port of Baltimore predicts steady growth through the next decade.

A study sponsored by the Maryland Port Administration estimated the Port of Baltimore generated $1.4 billion in business and federal government revenues in 1998 and $1.8 billion in salary. Containerized cargo business at Baltimore has been growing steadily at 3 percent per year and is expected to continue through the next decade, Miss Scioli said.

To avoid backlogs, the Maryland Port Administration is making high-tech investments intended to use space more efficiently and speed shipments from port terminals to trucks and trains.

Before the mega-ships make the Europe-to-East Coast trek, they are more likely to move between Asia and the East Coast, industry insiders predict.

"It's just a question of economies of scale in trade," said Rex Sherman, research director for the American Association of Port Authorities in Alexandria. It takes long trips or large volumes of trade to make the big ships profitable. "Those large ships aren't cheap," he said.

The Maryland Department of Transportation has no specific plans to increase road capacity as the size of ships increase, other than ongoing plans to improve the transportation network.

Besides expanding roadway and rail capacity, proposals for alleviating traffic include unloading cargo onto barges that would ferry it to smaller ports close to other cities. Among them could be Alexandria, Richmond, Wilmington, Del., and Philadelphia.

The Rosslyn-based National Ports and Waterways Institute supports barge traffic as a replacement for trucks and trains for what they call "coastal shipping."

So far, the slow delivery time for barges has given trucks and rail a competitive advantage. But a new line of "fast ferries" being developed could speed cargo at 40 mph to 50 mph instead of the 10 mph typical of most barge traffic.

"Supposedly it will eventually take a large chunk of the traffic on I-95 and put it on the water," said Asaf Ashar, a maritime researcher for the institute.

Barges produce less pollution for each pound of cargo they transport and do not create congestion on the roads or rails.

"You saw what happened in Baltimore with the tunnel," Mr. Ashar said. "The water has unlimited capacity."

He was referring to a July 18 CSX Transportation Inc. train derailment and fire in a tunnel through Baltimore that caused rerouting of rail shipments along the mid-Atlantic for more than a week. The 60-car train included nine cars carrying acids and other flammable materials.

Mr. Ashar predicted that if the mega-ships come to the East Coast, Norfolk would have an advantage over Baltimore because shippers might want to avoid the eight-hour trek up the Chesapeake Bay.

Railroads, like CSX, are developing a report with the Maryland Department of Transportation that was motivated partly by concern about increased rail traffic around the Port of Baltimore. It is intended to identify "choke points" in the state's rail system and best methods for eliminating them. The report is scheduled to be completed late this year.

"It's really a first-of-a-kind recognition of the fact that there is a finite set of tracks in the state," said CSX spokesman Rob Gould. "For commuter rail service to grow and for freight service to grow, both of which the state wants to happen, we're going to have to find those critical choke points."

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