Trade at the Port of Hampton Roads grew at an unrivaled rate during the first six months of this year, narrowing the gap that has kept it in third place among East Coast ports, according to figures released by the Virginia Port Authority.

General cargo traffic -- which includes containerized and break-bulk goods but not bulk items such as coal and grains -- increased 35 percent to nearly two million tons during the period, about six times the rate of its closest competitor, according to VPA spokesman Joe Dorto.

By comparison, general cargo at the port of Baltimore, the number two East Coast port behind New York, declined 3 percent for the same period, the worst performance among four ports cited by Dorto. Cargo traffic increased 6 percent at the Charleston, N.C., while Savannah, Ga., posted a 5 percent increase, Dorto said. The figures are based on Census Bureau reports for the first five months and projections for the sixth, he said.

While Dorto expressed the VPA's jubilation over the figures, a spokesman for the port of Baltimore, Virginia's archrival, brushed it off. The differing growth rates is "not significant, and never will be until Hampton Roads gets into the same ballpark," said Maryland Port Authority spokesman Donald Klein.

Baltimore still leads in total tonnage, doing between two and three times the volume of cargo handled by its rival, he said.

In the past six months, Baltimore handled nearly three million tons of general cargo versus two million tons at Hampton Roads, which includes the terminals at Norfolk, Newport News and Portsmouth.

VPA's fight to secure new traffic has centered on a largely successful marketing and advertising campaign directed at shipping lines. Since the first of the year, VPA has won the business of seven major shipping lines, in some cases stealing business right from the mouths of its competitors, Dorto said.

VPA touts the port's physical advantages over Baltimore, such as greater draft in its berths and its proximity to the ocean, a 2 1/2-hour trip for Hampton Roads versus 16 hours for Baltimore.

But MPA's Klein says proximity to the ocean ultimately is to Baltimore's advantage. Being further inland, Baltimore is closer to the Midwest, the final destination for much of the cargo. That is important to a shipper who has to pay more in land transportaion costs than for sea transportation, he says.

To attract more shipping lines, Klein says, Baltimore plans to make ready the C&D Canal, which runs from the Chesapeake Bay to the Delaware Bay, for freighter traffic. The canal, which needs dredging to make it suitable for larger ships, would obviate the long passage south around Cape Charles and up the Chesapeake for all northern traffic.

Klein says opening the canal is one of several actions Baltimore is taking "to reverse the trend" of losing traffic to Hampton Roads. The mid-year report is "the last bunch of figures that will come out that way," he said.

In Virginia, however, the VPA seems very self-assured about closing the gap even further and taking Baltimore's place as the number two general cargo port on the East Coast.

"Not this year," Dorto says, "but we're hopeful that it will in the next year or two."