With the recession and the Persian Gulf war hurting imports, cargo volume fell in 1991 for the Port of New York and New Jersey.

Officials at the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey said they hoped the port's improved rail connections to the Midwest, along with growth in imports from Southeast Asia, would help the port improve its share of the hotly contested North Atlantic ports container market.But according to statistics released Wednesday, the port's market share fell slightly in 1991 to 39.3 percent in 1991 as general cargo volume fell to 12 million long tons from 12.4 million in 1990. A long ton is 2,240 pounds.

"It's a tough market," said Lillian C. Liburdi, the authority's port director. "We're continuing to fight it out with each other" on the North Atlantic, she continued.

Mrs. Liburdi, however said she expects the port's traffic to grow about 2 percent in 1992 as the U.S. economy pulls out of the recession.

"The recession and the (Persian Gulf) war took a toll on us" in 1991

because the port is so dependent on imports, Mrs. Liburdi said.

In 1991, about 64 percent of the traffic through New York-New Jersey port was imports.

That export-import balance has improved a great deal from just a few years ago when over 80 percent of the port's cargo was imports, said Mrs. Liburdi. Steamship lines prefer a more balanced cargo flow, she explained.

Mrs. Liburdi said the port would continue to battle fiercely in an attempt to gain a strong foothold in the market for cargo going to or from the Midwest. Baltimore and Hampton Roads, Va., traditionally have dominated that market.

As part of New York's effort to capture Midwest cargo, it will spend about $10 million to build a permanent on-dock rail terminal at its New Jersey facilities that should be operating by the fall of 1993, Mrs. Liburdi said. An interim on-dock facility opened late this summer.

To prepare for future growth, the port is also spending $9 million to upgrade its now vacant Howland Hook Container Terminal on Staten Island, N.Y.

Although there are no strong prospects for a container tenant at that facility, Mrs. Liburdi said there are discussions going on with some smaller breakbulk operators to use it.

The port is not making the same kind of financial commitment to maintain some of its properties it now considers outside of its core business.

With the failure to reach a consensus with the Brooklyn Heights community about the use of piers 1-5 in Brooklyn, N.Y., the port authority may sell those properties that boast a spectacular view of lower Manhattan to a private real estate developer, Mrs. Liburdi said.

A plan along those lines a few years ago sparked fierce community opposition.

There are also plans to sell waterfront properties in Erie Basin, Brooklyn, that are unsuited for container operations, Mrs. Liburdi said. And the authority continues to plan to give up operating the Passenger Ship Terminal on the West Side of Manhattan when its lease there expires at the end of 1994, she said.

Exports were the bright spot in the port's 1991 figures, growing 10 percent to 4.3 million long tons from 3.9 million tons, the year before.