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Port posts 15% gain in volume

Automobiles drove a banner year for the Port of Baltimore in 2011, as the port handled a record $51.4 billion in cargo, including a nation-leading total of cars and trucks.

According to the port’s figures, it also led the nation in year-over-year increases in total cargo handled, with nearly 38 million tons passing across the docks in 2011, up from nearly 33 million tons in 2010 — a 15 percent increase. The port moved $41.4 million in cargo in 2010.

A port-record 19.2 million tons of coal — the second-highest total in the nation — helped account for the increase in tonnage. Baltimore was ranked 11th for the total dollar value of cargo and 12th for cargo tonnage.

It was also a record-breaking year for cruises at the port, as more than 250,000 people and more than 100 cruises left Baltimore. The port boards the fifth-most cruise passengers on the East Coast and 14th-most in the nation, according to the Maryland Port Administration.

James J. White, executive director of the port administration, said the partnerships established between Baltimore and dozens of private companies paid big dividends last year.

He said success was about “developing relationships with importers and exporters and ship owners.”

“We had a fantastic year with coal at the two private terminals,” White said. “Our automobile business just boomed. … We’ve been working very hard.”

In a statement, Gov. Martin O’Malley called the port “one of our nations’ greatest” and credited the port’s ability to weather the recession’s economic storm.

“The port has been able to endure tough economic times and demonstrate levels of success even greater than other ports thanks to long-term contracts with major shipping companies, unique job-creating business partnerships, and shrewd infrastructure investments,” O’Malley said. “The port’s good performance last year is excellent news for the thousands of men and women who work at the port and depend on it to provide for their families.”

Baltimore processed a record 551,000 automobiles, more than any other port in the United States. Mercedes-Benz, with which the port is in the eighth year of a 20-year contract, has $1 billion worth of cars at the port at any given time, White said.

The port also ranked first in handling farm and construction equipment, imported forest products, imported sugar, imported iron ore and imported gypsum.

Seven import and export records were set in 2011, a fact White attributed to the good work of International Longshoremen’s Association crews and the port’s reputation among shippers.

“We handle the cargo quicker on and off ships than any other port on the U.S. East Coast,” White said. “We clearly outperform them. Both labor and management recognize that’s a requirement, quite honestly, if we ask a ship owner to come all the way [up the Chesapeake Bay]. … We try to model our port as the most customer-friendly port in the nation. We do it their way rather than ours.”

White said Baltimore cranes move 37 containers per hour, a rate Ports America — a terminal operator with operations in every major U.S. port — called one of the “fastest and most efficient” rates on the East Coast.

Exports at the port accounted for 24 million tons and imports totaled just about 14 million tons.

The port also set records for the number of shipping containers handled at public marine terminals (402,135 total, the equivalent of 631,806 20-foot units) and their total weight (6 million tons). In addition, wood pulp handled at the public marine terminals established a record at 520,000 tons.