November 9, 2009

Port Administration mulls bids to operate Seagirt terminal

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By Andy Rosen
Andy@MarylandReporter.com

Officials were mum on Monday as a crucial deadline passed in the Maryland Port Administration’s process of weighing candidates to take over the publicly-owned Seagirt Marine terminal for 30 years.

Richard Scher, an MPA spokesman, said by e-mail that the state agency has little it will discuss about the effort to find a private partner, after a noon deadline for final offers passed for the two bidders who emerged at the end of June.

“We continue to move forward with the … process,” Scher’s e-mail reads, “but we’re not going to discuss any potential offers right now.”

The two bidders named in June are well-known around the Port of Baltimore.

Ports America Inc. has operated Seagirt since it opened under a series of contracts with the state. It is owned by Highstar Capital, a private equity firm in New York. Ceres Terminals, Inc., owned by Alinda Capital Partners, has a significant presence in the Port of Baltimore as well, performing some of the stevedoring work at Seagirt and operating a private South Baltimore terminal.

Officials with both companies did not respond to requests for interviews, and Scher would not say whether either of them submitted final bids.

The Port Administration has been working for the better part of two years on a deal for Seagirt, a 200-acre facility which opened in 1990 as the primary public terminal in the Port of Baltimore for shipping containers.

Officials with the MPA have grown increasingly concerned about the facility’s ability to compete with ports in New York and Virginia without major improvements that the state says it can’t afford. Foremost among the needs they identified is a berth that is large enough for ships that draw 50 feet.

The port already has three, 45-foot berths, but wants a fourth at 50 feet. The Panama Canal is undergoing a widening project set to be completed in 2011, and the state is trying to prepare for new, larger ships that will pass through from the Pacific Ocean.

Under the framework that the MPA set up for the deal, the state would continue to own Seagirt, but the selected company would take over all operations at the terminal, with the likely exception of security. The company would collect revenue and pay rent to the state.

Under the existing arrangement, Ports America has been operating Seagirt under a year-to-year contract and being paid by the state for stevedore services.