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Port of Baltimore’s Seagirt terminal set for expansion in 2012

The expanded Seagirt Marine Terminal will open for business in August 2012, its operator said Wednesday, with upgrades that will make the Port of Baltimore more hospitable to the next generation of supersized cargo ships.

Port officials hope the terminal will help woo more trade from Asia and dovetail with work being done on a rail corridor from central Maryland to Northwest Ohio to open up markets along the East Coast and into the Midwest.

CSX Corp. announced Wednesday that it would put up the final $160 million needed for its National Gateway project, which will raise bridges or lower tracks in 50 locations along the route to allow its trains to carry shipping containers stacked two high.

“Baltimore has everything in place — deep water, a very, very strong local market, which up until this point, it has really underserved,” said John C. Martin, a Lancaster, Pa. economic and transportation system consultant.

James J. White, executive director of the Maryland Port Administration, called the expanded Seagirt terminal “a game changer” at a seminar Wednesday for businesses connected to the port.

“When the Panama Canal expansion is completed in 2014, the big ships won’t be able to go everywhere, but they will be able to sail up and down the Chesapeake Bay and call on the Port of Baltimore,” he said.

Seagirt’s $105 million addition is being undertaken by Ports America Chesapeake, which leased the terminal from the state in 2010 in a deal Maryland transportation officials value at more than $1 billion.

Work is about halfway done, according to Ports America. Dredging crews have nearly hit the 50-foot depth required, an extended wharf will be finished this year and four new plus-sized cranes will be installed by next May, said Mark Montgomery, president and CEO of Ports America. The anticipated opening date is nearly two years earlier than what is required by Ports America’s lease.

The larger accommodations will allow the port to bring in ships fully loaded with 12,000 20-foot shipping containers, two or three times larger than the vessels that visit now.

A wider Panama Canal will allow large vessels from China and Japan to travel to the East Coast, instead of unloading in a port like Los Angeles and shipping goods by truck or rail across the country.

Martin and CSX officials said Wednesday that more trade could flow into Baltimore from the east as factories spring up in Southeast Asia and India.

“You see more and more steamship lines opening terminals in India and Vietnam, and that’s all Suez Canal,” Martin said. “That puts Baltimore in a very interesting position.”

Baltimore would be only one of three ports on the East Coast with the 50-foot channels and berths required by fully loaded mega-cargo ships. But Martin said low bridges and congestion in New York would keep the biggest ships out of that harbor, and a smaller local market around Hampton Roads would make that destination less attractive than Baltimore.

To handle the extra traffic, CSX is working with the state to find land outside Baltimore, along the Route 1 and Interstate 95 corridor, to build a facility to load containers onto its trains.

The anchor of the rail corridor to Ohio has faced stiff local opposition in Howard County, but Gov. Martin O’Malley said it’s a critical component to the port’s growth.

“To maximize the potential of that 50-foot berth, we have to invest in rail upgrades,” he said.

National Gateway is expected to cost about $850 million. CSX has committed $575 million and more than $280 million will come from the federal and state governments. Maryland has committed $75 million to the project.

Fredrik Eliasson, vice president of emerging markets for CSX, said the rail link could expand the Baltimore port’s reach from six CSX markets to 17 and 80 million new customers by 2015.