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Charting a course in the battle of ports

Port of BaltimoreThe Panama Canal expansion isn’t expected to be complete until 2015 but the battle of the ports is well underway.

Both Baltimore and Norfolk ports have 50-foot-deep berths and cranes to move containers from some of the worlds largest ships. In May, the Port of Baltimore added four, 40-story cranes, called “Super Post-Panamax Cranes,” to handle oversized container ships.

The Panama Canal expansion is to allow for larger and wider ships for efficient shipping lines between the eastern seaboard and Asia. The large ships are being called “Post-Panamax” ships.

While attending a maritime conference in India this year, there was a lot of talk about new shipping lines to the U.S. In fact, while attending the conference, the Gas Authority of India announced a deal with Dominion Resources to produce liquefied natural gas by 2017 at Cove Point in Lusby for shipping to India. And earlier this month, India’s largest shipping company, the Shipping Corporation of India, announced its intentions to assist in the transportation of LNG from Lusby. The larger tankers will be able to use the expanded canal, which is expected to reduce overall LNG shipping costs by approximately 25 percent.

West Coast ports handle about 75 percent of Asian imports but when the Panama Canal expansion is complete, East Coast ports will be attractive, shorter alternatives. Ports in New York and Miami are also contenders for the Post-Panamax ships. The Port of Miami is investing $2 billion in infrastructure upgrades to service the larger ships and is calling itself the “Bridge to the Americas.” It is also planning on acquiring four large cranes similar to the ones recently added by the Port of Baltimore.

Miami’s strategy may resonate with Asian markets. During the conference in India, I met many folks in India and Bangladesh’s shipping industry that were excited about the growth they were seeing in Latin American markets and expressed an interest in sea ports situated to service both North and South American markets.

While the East Coast ports are beefing up, the West Coast ports are also preparing for the competition to attract large container ships. California has an initiative called “Beat the Canal,” aimed to enhance competitiveness of the state’s green ports and corridors.

While the battle of the ports play out, small businesses should also prepare for the opportunities. The Port of Baltimore is responsible for approximately $5.6 billion in spin-off economic activity in the region and this number is expected to grow after the Panama Canal expansion. The opportunities are super-sized, so small businesses involved in shipping and logistics should take note of these big changes coming down the Chesapeake Bay.

I’d love to hear from small businesses that have a Post-Panamax strategy in their playbook.

Photo: The huge new cranes at Seagirt Marine Terminal will be a vital component of handling cargo from the larger ships that will come to Baltimore through the expanded Panama Canal in a couple of years. (Alexander Pyles/The Daily Record)