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Port of Baltimore now No. 1 international auto shipping hub

The Port of Baltimore was the busiest international automobile shipping hub in the United States in the first half of 2011, according to figures released Monday.

Baltimore eclipsed New York, the top auto shipper last year, with 270,700 vehicles handled from January through June, about 30,000 more than in the corresponding period in 2010.

Those vehicles totaled some 538,000 tons, a 15 percent increase over 2010.

Gov. Martin O’Malley called the figures “another good step forward in continuing to rebound from one of our country’s most challenging economic periods” in a statement released Monday.

But, that rebound may not be as high in the second half of the year.

Last week, Transportation Secretary Beverley K. Swaim-Staley said her department is “seeing a little bit of a dip in some of the port revenues” in recent reports.

Swaim-Staley did not say where the port’s business had sagged, but did say the Department of Transportation expects gasoline tax revenues and titling taxes on vehicle purchases, which were on the rise earlier this year, to flatten in August. That could indicate softening demand in an economy rocked by the federal debt ceiling deal, the downgrade of the U.S. bond rating, the European debt crises and faltering consumer confidence.

The auto shipping figures were released on the heels of U.S. Census Bureau data that showed Baltimore moved up one spot in terms of the values of the goods shipped in 2010, claiming the 11th spot of the more than 360 ports nationwide.

The strong performance continued into 2011.

General cargo totaled 4.5 million tons during the first six months of the year, a 13 percent increase. Foreign commerce at the public and private terminals grew 12 percent to 19.3 million tons.

Farm and construction machinery shot up 51 percent; container traffic increased 10 percent; pulp used to produce paper products, 12 percent; and break bulk, 11 percent.

The port is scheduled to open a major expansion in August that port officials expect to bring in even more shipping business. A 50-foot berth and extra-large container cranes at the Seagirt Marine Terminal will allow the largest cargo ships to visit Baltimore.

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

A wider Panama Canal channel, expected to be finished in 2014, will bring those ships from China and Japan, and state officials hope continued growth in Southeast Asia will bring more shipping traffic from that region as well.

The $105 million Seagirt expansion is being undertaken by Ports America Chesapeake, a private port operator that holds a 50-year lease on the terminal.