Last year, the Port of Baltimore handled the most cargo by volume it’s seen since right before a recession began — in 1979.
About 38.5 million tons of cargo worth $53.9 billion passed through the public and private marine terminals at the port in 2017, placing it just behind banner years recorded in 1974 and 1979, according to port officials.
In fact, the first quarter of 2018 was the port’s best in its 312-year history for the amount of general cargo and containers passing through. In May, the Port handled 61,058 autos and light trucks, beating the previous record of 60,624 set in November 2015.
Some of this astounding success can no doubt be attributed to the rising demand generated by an energized economy.
Port officials also acknowledge the boosts from a $5 billion expansion of the Panama Canal, along with the fact that Baltimore is only one of four eastern U.S. ports with a shipping channel large enough to accommodate some of the biggest container ships in the world.
That expansion has also paved the way for the port’s auto import area, which for seven years in a row has handled more cars and light trucks than any other U.S. port. And it’s hardly a surprise as to why.
Autos roll into the Port
Combined, the public and private terminals handled 807,194 cars and light trucks last year, marking the first time on record the port breached the 800,000 mark. The port has, in total, 608 acres dedicated for automobiles and roll-on, roll-off cargoes.
The first auto import to Baltimore was a Volkswagen Beetle in 1963. Today, port officials said brand name imports like Jaguar-Land Rover, Mitsubishi, Nissan and Subaru, which notched gains over 2016, ship there. Even Tesla put up impressive numbers during its first full year at the port.
Talk of an impending trade war that may include tariffs on auto imports present a potential headwind that the industry is both opposed to and bracing for. Still, first quarter data from the Mexico Automotive Association shows Mexican auto imports to the U.S. actually rose 5.3 percent, as NAFTA negotiations remain ongoing.
Indeed, Mexico has become one of Baltimore’s main import sources, as have northern Europe and Japan, according to a North American ports survey by Automotive Logistics. Exports go back to northern Europe, the Middle East, South America and Australia and New Zealand.
One of the key factors for the 10.3 percent increase in volumes last year was Honda’s move to start importing cars from the U.K. to Baltimore and exporting cars to Mexico. General Motors also began to import vehicles to Baltimore from Mexico, while Ford started importing units from India, officials at the Maryland Port Administration said.
“The Port of Baltimore is geographically closer to the Midwest than any other East Coast port,” said Richard Scher, director of communications for the Maryland Port Administration. “That puts us closer to Midwest markets and also vehicle manufacturing facilities.”
Every single auto roll-on/roll-off ocean carrier calls at the port, Scher said.
Baltimore also has four on-dock vehicle processors going for it. These companies can add extra features to vehicles by special order and can conduct multi-point safety checks, he said.
Much of Baltimore’s public state-of-the-art auto processing and handling facilities take place at the 160-acre Fairfield/Masonville Terminals, port officials said.
The nearby, and privately owned, Chesapeake and Atlantic auto terminals offer 250 acres for auto processing and handling as well, according to the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT).
But the auto import business has been so brisk, even more acreage is being planned to accommodate the influx at the port.
In July, the state’s Board of Public Works approved a proposal to turn a seven-acre, defunct World War II-era wet basin near the Fairfield Marine Terminal into a storage lot for cars and trucks.
Quality is king
The port’s highly regarded Quality Cargo Handling Action Team (QCHAT) program is another standout feature that attracts the auto industry.
QCHAT was formed in 1997 under inauspicious beginnings. According to Scher, one of the port’s largest customers at the time threatened to move its cargo out of the port if something wasn’t done to address damages its cargo was sustaining while in Baltimore.
The port rushed to organize a comprehensive team to address that customer’s concerns, and included everyone from stevedores and terminal operators to processors and port officials. To this day, stakeholders from these groups meet monthly.
“Through QCHAT, the Port of Baltimore can show tangible results in quality metrics and demonstrate to its customers that we are committed to the safe handling of their cargo,” Scher said.
On the agenda are topics such as addressing the 38 quality factors that are benchmarked for automobiles, or the 45 quality factors required for roll-on/roll-off equipment. Bi-monthly meetings are held where quality trends at the port are reported out to the port community and its customers.
“No other port has a similar program like QCHAT,” Scher said. “Competitors work collaboratively to address issues and identify solutions to common concerns.”