GENERAL cargo handled at the port of Baltimore rose by 3.3 per cent during the first quarter of this year, say port officials. The officials said a continuing positive trend which had seen a six per cent rise of general cargo during the second half of last year. ''General cargo has increased in each of the past three quarters, and we are optimistic this upward trend will continue as the economy improves,'' the statement added. According to the port, general cargo at the port five public marine terminals rose to 1.31 million tonnes, compared to 1.27 tonnes during the same period previously. Maryland Secretary of Transportation and chairman of the Maryland Port Commission James Lighthizer said over the past two years, the port had taken a number of positive steps to make it more competitive. ''With the sluggish economy, the results of those actions have not been readily apparent,'' he said. ''Now, we are reaping the benefits of that hard work that has encouraged our customers to increase their commitment to the port.'' Container tonnage at the port's public terminals rose 982,275 tonnes in the first three months of this year, up 4.7 per cent from the 938,385 tonnes handled in the first quarter of last year. Import container tonnage rose almost 14 per cent to 443,318 tonnes, up sharply from the 389,098 tonnes handled in the first quarter of last year. Executive director of the Maryland Port Administration Adrian Teel said this balance in trade illustrated one of the real strengths of the port of Baltimore. The huge Washington-Baltimore consumer market with its 6.8 million people attracted imports, while the port's central location and proximity to the industrial mid-west provided the exports that steamship lines needed to fill their vessels, he said.