The Maryland Port Administration is seeking private investors to help fund the construction of a 50-foot berth at the Seagirt Marine Terminal at the Port of Baltimore.
Port officials say they need the 50-foot berth to attract containerships that are too large to transit the Panama Canal. The terminal currently has three 45-foot berths, but those are too shallow to accommodate container vessels with capacities exceeding 6,000 TEUs.
The 50-foot berth has been a top priority for several years for port officials who see it as essential in order for Baltimore to remain competitive with other East Coast ports. Until now, however, the focus has been primarily on getting the state to finance the $120-million project. Otherwise, the port would have to fight to tap into the state's transportation trust fund.
James J. White, the port administration's executive director, told the Baltimore Sun that there's been "a lot of interest by all the big financial companies. When times are tight like they are right now, the Port of Baltimore falls down the list in pleading to the state for additional funding."
An article in the Sun published Dec. 18 reported the port's interest in finding private sources to finance the berth. J.B. Hanson, a port spokesman, confirmed the story. One option had been to sell the World Trade Center building, which is owned by the state but falls under the jurisdiction of the MPA. That option is now off the table, Hanson said.
Baltimore has a 50-foot channel but lacks a berth that deep. White expects the state to decide this spring whether to ask investors to finance the work, according to the Sun.
One possibility is that the port administration could link the investment in the 50-foot berth to a 20- or 30-year lease to run Seagirt, Baltimore's largest container terminal.
Ports America, an arm of AIG Global Investment Group that bought P&O Ports from the Dubai government in March, currently operates Seagirt under a nearly $50-million one-year contract extension approved shortly after the sale. The formerly British-owned P&O Ports had operated Seagirt under a six-year contract.
John M. Stokes, a partner with the $3.5-billion AIG Highstar Capital fund that owns Ports America, told the Sun that a long-term lease for Seagirt would give AIG greater flexibility in recovering its investment in the project.
Mediterranean Shipping Co., the largest shipping line operating in Baltimore, could consider paying for improvements at Seagirt, said Capt. Lorenzo Di Casagrande, a company vice president who has overseen its Baltimore operations for more than 20 years. MSC needs a 50-foot berth to take full advantage of the capacity of its newer ships. For example, when the company's 997-foot MSC Michaela visited the port last month, the vessel could only carry less than half its 6,700-plus containers it can hold.