An interview with the Maryland Port Administration

It’s no secret that the Port of Baltimore is thriving and growing thanks to a strategic location, key investments in infrastructure, and significant public/private partnerships. Last summer, the port welcomed the new, larger ships that can now fit through the Panama Canal – one of the few ports on the East Coast capable of doing so. In March, The Baltimore Sun reported that container traffic increased by 20 percent in January to hit record levels.

What drives the port’s recent successes, how will the port capitalize on trends in technology and trade, and what role does it play in the broader region? We had a conversation with two officials from the Maryland Port Administration – Donovan Murray, General Manager, Intermodal/Trade Development and Richard Scher, Director of Communications. The following transcript is the first part of our interview, and has been edited for length and clarity.

DTJ: Thanks for taking time out of your schedule to interview today. As a starter, I’m hoping you can talk a bit about your Intermodal/Trade Development team’s role with the MPA.

Mr. Murray: Sure. So I’m the general manager of the team here. We report up into operations at the port. And we are a relatively new group – we’ve only been in existence less than three years, and we were created out of a growing need to better connect customers of the port with all of the various logistical components along the supply chain. Our group is primarily container focused when it comes to connecting directly with the customers.

Within that context the beneficial cargo owner, the BCO, is front and center in that relationship. The best way to think of them – those are the folks who have their names on the sides of the distribution centers, the big importers, but that’s taking nothing away from our import/export customers as well.

So in that discussion supporting those BCOs, we will help coordinate and facilitate with terminal operators, with chassis providers, with truckers, with freight forwarders – everything that has to do with the movement of the cargo and those touchpoints.

Our group will also become involved in regulatory issues that affect our customers’ ability to move cargo through the port with velocity. So things like federal agency coordination – our group has that responsibility on behalf of the MPA – we are the conduit between all of the federal agency partners. There’s about a half a dozen primary ones, but believe it or not there are 47 total federal agencies that have some level of purview over cargo moving in and out of the United States.

So not only in formal structured monthly meetings of FAQWG, Federal Agency Quality Work Group, we’ve had that in the port for over 20 years. And that’s a formal gathering that meets monthly with the heads of all of the respective federal agencies here in the greater Baltimore area. And we discuss regulations, policies, issues, and concerns from not only the government side that we can communicate to our mutual customers, but then also we can share challenges, concerns and requests for assistance from our port customers back in through the federal agencies, about either changes in their business models, heightened inspections, whatever it may be that they need more assistance and direction.

We also have the ability, outside of those formal settings, to meet with those individual government agencies and the BCOs together. That is something unique in Baltimore, that our BCO customers have reported they don’t get that level of cooperation and assistance from the other ports, let alone the other federal agencies in those ports.

We also work closely with our MDOT partners, such as SHA and MDTA, on helping overweight, over-dimensional cargo movement through the port, and helping to coordinate and facilitate the dialogue so that our MDOT partners understand the particular issues, concerns or challenges that port customers have that may be different than other trucking interests or other cargo interests moving through the port.

DTJ: That’s a fairly extensive and impressive sounding workload. You’d mentioned that your team is about what, six or seven folks?

Mr. Murray: Yes, we have a total of six people.

DTJ: I was absolutely fascinated by the presentation you gave to our Baltimore Chapter earlier this year. I’ll admit that even living in the DC region, I really didn’t know how large an impact the Port of Baltimore has on a national scale. Could you walk me through the basics of the port’s scope and its basic components?

Mr. Murray: Certainly. The port at large is grouped into two basic types of terminals – we have public terminals and we have private terminals. The MPA has five main public terminals, where we own the land, and operators lease space on our various facilities to be able to handle the different types of cargo, primarily general cargo.

General cargo is loosely framed as containers, automobiles, other ro/ro cargo, break bulk, special project cargo. By and large we do not get involved in bulk commodities. For the most part those are handled by private terminals, of which we have about 30 in the Port of Baltimore. So overall it’s a mix of public and private terminals with about three-dozen in total at the Baltimore waterfront.

And we do enjoy a wonderful collaborative relationship and partnership. Our primary role is really an economic engine for the state. So as long as cargo is moving through docks in the Port of Baltimore, we know that is a win and we will help the private operators attract that cargo as well. And we do have wonderful private terminal port operators here in Baltimore.

Outside of the public and private terminals themselves, there are many different types of companies that help the movement of cargo through Baltimore. You have tugboat companies, you have pilots, you have vessel boarding agents, you have freight forwarders – many different components that either physically help vessels and cargo move, or you have those from [an] administrative perspective that manage the documentation, the entries, the coordination and the logistics. It’s really a healthy and collaborative mix that makes up the entire port.

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