Critical study to help Port of Baltimore meet vessel needs

USACE, Baltimore District
Published Jan. 11, 2021
The Gunde Maersk at the Port of Baltimore.(Photo courtesy of the Maryland Department of Transportation, Maryland Port Administration)

The Gunde Maersk at the Port of Baltimore.(Photo courtesy of the Maryland Department of Transportation, Maryland Port Administration)

With its existing 50-foot deep channel and Neo-Panamax cranes, the Port of Baltimore is already able to accommodate some of the largest container ships in the world, and has experienced significant growth in containers in recent years. Baltimore District is teaming up with the Maryland Port Administration (MPA) to ensure future capacity needs are met.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Baltimore District, works tenaciously to monitor and maintain more than 290 miles of federal channels within the Susquehanna River watershed through its navigation mission. Maintaining safe marine navigation in the Baltimore Harbor to provide access to the Port of Baltimore — a major economic generator — is a key aspect.

Efficient and safe navigation is necessary to keep the Port running smoothly, and a critical study to help meet the future needs of the Port of Baltimore Harbor is the most recent effort for Baltimore District’s vital navigation mission.

Baltimore District signed a Feasibility Cost Share Agreement Sept. 22, 2020, in partnership with the Maryland Department of Transportation MPA, to commence a $3 million, three-year study to improve capacity, safety and efficiency at the Baltimore Harbor Anchorages and Channels project.

The end goal of the study is to identify one or more solutions like channel widening and deepening that can safely accommodate the current and projected increase in the number and size of post-Panamax vessels calling at the Port. 

The Seagirt Loop Channel that serves the Seagirt Marine Terminal is the destination for a majority of container traffic in the Port. Seagirt Loop is made up of the Seagirt West Branch Channel that tracks along the Seagirt Marine Terminal, and portions of Dundalk/Seagirt Connecting Channel and West Dundalk Branch Channel. It connects to Fort McHenry Channel, which is used by ships entering and exiting the harbor.

“We value our partnership with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and we are very excited to move forward with them on developing the Seagirt loop Channel to accommodate today’s ultra-Panamax container ships,” said MDOT MPA Executive Direction William P. Doyle. “As our container volumes continue to grow and we expand the Seagirt Marine Terminal, a wider, deeper loop channel that’s safely navigable for vessels is critical.”

The study is being carried out under Section 216 of the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1970, which allows modifications to existing water resources projects including navigation if physical or economic conditions have changed significantly since project completion. The original Baltimore Harbor Anchorages and Channels Study was completed in 1998. The Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) of 1999 authorized improvements to the Dundalk, Seagirt and South Locust Point branch channels, and the deepening of Anchorages 3 and 4 in the Baltimore Harbor.

Since the completion of these significant navigation improvements in 2003, larger vessels in terms of length, width and draft have been transiting through the Port in concert with the expansion of the Panama Canal, necessitating a new study that evaluates current and future conditions and needs.

The channels in Baltimore Harbor that form the Seagirt Loop are authorized to 42 feet and are maintained to depths varying from 42 to 51 feet. Post-Panamax container vessels can carry twice the cargo capacity and require deeper drafts than the ships used to design the 42-foot access channels to the Seagirt Marine Terminal.

The scope of the study includes the following: widening and deepening the Seagirt Loop Channel; redesigning an anchorage to allow 50-foot draft vessels to stand by within Baltimore Harbor; examining the deepening of the South Locust Point Branch Channel and Turning Basin; and considering and evaluating other structural and non-structural measures that will result in improved transportation efficiencies.

“The overall goal of the study is to maximize Baltimore Harbor’s contribution to national economic development, consistent with protecting the nation’s environment, by improving the existing navigation system’s ability to safely and efficiently serve the forecasted vessel fleet,” said Luis Santiago, Baltimore District community planner.