By Maryland Department of Commerce
As consumer demand skyrocketed in 2021, the increased import and export of container cargo strained the supply chain and pushed congestion at American ports, particularly those on the West Coast, to an all-time high.
But at the Helen Delich Bentley Port of Baltimore, things were different.
It was busy, but there were no lines, no backup of ships waiting to be unloaded. In fact, while other ports were diverting ships they couldn’t service, Baltimore was welcoming dozens of these “ad hoc” ships to accommodate the overflow elsewhere in the country.
Maryland’s strategic location on the East Coast – more than one-third of the U.S. population is within an overnight drive of the Free State – and its road, rail and airport access have helped turn the state into a major logistics and e-commerce hub. As a result, goods unloaded at the Port of Baltimore were moved quickly to local distribution and fulfillment centers, to the midwest via trucks and rail, and into the homes of consumers.
While the 43.6 million tons of cargo handled by the Port of Baltimore in 2021 fell just short of the record, the dollar value of that cargo reached a new high of $61.3 billion, despite the worldwide supply chain challenges and the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Port of Baltimore is also the nation’s top handler of roll-on/roll-off cargo; that is, vehicles such as cars, trucks, tractors and other construction and farm equipment.
Several recent announcements have paved the way for continued growth in the Port of Baltimore’s container business. Israel-based ZIM Shipping line announced earlier this year that a new e-commerce service would call at the port’s Seagirt Marine Terminal, and Mediterranean Shipping Company added Baltimore to an existing international container service.
“The international shipping industry continues to speak loudly and favorably about the convenience, service and reliability of Maryland’s Port of Baltimore,” said Maryland Governor Larry Hogan.
Major infrastructure improvements have included a second deepwater berth – allowing the port to service multiple supersized cargo ships simultaneously – and four enormous, Neo-Panamax container cranes, which were part of a $166 million investment by Ports America Chesapeake, the public-private partnership that operates Seagirt Marine Terminal, to increase capacity and efficiency.
The cranes, which arrived in late 2021 and began operations earlier this year, each stand 450 feet tall and weigh over 1,700 tons. They can lift 187,500 pounds of cargo, and are fully electric so they produce no diesel emissions.
William P. Doyle, executive director of the Maryland Port Administration, hailed the arrival of the new cranes as “a terrific day in the history of the Port of Baltimore” and praised the increased landside efficiency they would bring, particularly in conjunction with forthcoming rail line improvements.
Those improvements include the long-gestating expansion of the Howard Street Tunnel in downtown Baltimore, which will allow the 127-year-old tunnel to accommodate double-stacked containers moving to and from the Port of Baltimore. Additional clearance improvements between Baltimore and Philadelphia will allow uninterrupted double-stack container rail service along the East Coast from Florida to Maine, and will allow double-stack rail cars to move from the Port of Baltimore through the Ohio Valley and all the way to Chicago.
The project was long projected to cost as much as $4 billion dollars and cause major disruptions, but advances in technology have brought the cost down to approximately $466 million, including $202 million provided by the State of Maryland. It is scheduled to be completed in 2025.
“We are proving once again that investing in infrastructure is critical to our state and national economies and to the lives of everyday Marylanders and Americans,” Hogan said at the November 2021 groundbreaking for the project. “This is a continuation of our concerted efforts to make the Port of Baltimore much more competitive with other ports for the extremely sought after containerized cargo market. It is an absolute game changer, not just for Maryland, but for the entire region.”
The Howard Street Tunnel expansion is expected to generate 6,550 construction jobs as well as 7,300 jobs from increased business at the Port.
Complementing this project is a $15.6 million grant from the Federal Railroad Administration for updates to rail infrastructure at the Seagirt Marine Terminal. The funding, announced earlier this summer, will support more than 17,000 feet of new track as well as 7,000 feet of crane rail beams and will facilitate transferring shipping containers by truck or rail.
“Improving intermodal rail operations is one of our top priorities and the infrastructure improvements made possible through this grant will seamlessly complement our Howard Street Tunnel expansion,” Doyle said when the grant was announced. “Our rail service from the Port of Baltimore to the Midwest is already increasing as we pick up shippers diverting around congested gateways.”
The Port of Baltimore is one of Maryland’s most powerful economic engines, directly generating over 15,000 jobs and indirectly supporting another 140,000 jobs through port activities. But the port is only one facet of Maryland’s growing logistics, distribution and transportation industry, a thriving ecosystem that includes not only Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, which moved a record of more than 618 million pounds of cargo in 2021, but through an expanding network of warehousing and distribution hubs across the state.
Major e-commerce and retail companies have set up operations at massive developments such as Tradepoint Atlantic in Baltimore County, a multi-modal global logistics hub that includes warehouse space, deepwater berths, highway and rail access. Located at Sparrows Point, the former home of Bethlehem Steel, Tradepoint Atlantic’s tenants include Amazon, Home Depot, FedEx Under Armour, Floor & Decor, McCormick, and many other companies. Tradepoint is also becoming a hub for offshore wind energy production, with companies such as Orsted and U.S. Wind able to use the deepwater berths to easily load cumbersome wind turbines and components directly onto the water.
Maryland is also home to Principio Business Park, a logistics hub in Cecil County in northeast Maryland that is occupied by companies such as Lidl, Medline, Smithfield Hams, and Amazon; and in Western Maryland’s Washington County sits the emerging Hagerstown Logistics Center, already home to yet another Amazon fulfillment center.
With the worst days of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing supply-chain crisis fading into the past, Maryland remains an economic powerhouse on the East Coast. The state’s central location and powerful assets such as the Port of Baltimore and interconnected distribution and logistics ecosystem, combined with major investments in new and improved equipment infrastructure, have positioned it for continued growth and prosperity in the years to come.