DEEP DIVE: Key Bridge Collapse Will Strain Port Capacity, Increase Costs, Create Delays

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April 9, 2024Stefan Modrich, Reporter, 3E News TeamBlog

Response crews began removing shipping containers using a floating crane barge at the site of the Francis Scott Key Bridge on April 7, 2024.
(Key Bridge Response 2024 Unified Command photo).


(Editor’s Note: 3E is expanding news coverage to provide customers with insights into topics that enable a safer, more sustainable world by protecting people, safeguarding products, and helping businesses grow. DEEP DIVE articles, produced by reporters, feature interviews with subject matter experts and influencers as well as exclusive analysis provided by 3E researchers and consultants).

The 26 March 2024 collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge spanning Baltimore’s Patapsco River and Baltimore Harbor will have wide-ranging economic implications for the global supply chain and container shipping network — including delays to production schedules and delivery times and higher costs, experts told 3E.

The 1.6-mile bridge linked Interstate 695 (I-695), known locally as the Baltimore Beltway, and opened on 23 March 1977. The route was crucial for the delivery of hazardous materials (HAZMAT) and the access it provided to the Port of Baltimore, the nation’s 15th largest container port.

More than 30,000 vehicles crossed the Key Bridge daily, and the Port of Baltimore is a key auto industry hub, transporting more than 850,000 vehicles annually. The port’s public terminals handled 11.7 million tons of general cargo and 52.3 million tons of international cargo in 2023, according to Maryland Port Administration data.

Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said the value of the flow of commerce that comes through the Port of Baltimore daily is between $100 million and $200 million, and it produces about $2 million in daily wages.

“The Key Bridge collapse will put a huge strain on other East Coast ports as they try to absorb the cargo that would normally flow through Baltimore,” said Tinglong Dai, a professor at Johns Hopkins University’s Carey Business School. “It's like a game of musical chairs — there's just not enough capacity to go around, so we're looking at congestion, delays, and higher costs rippling up and down the supply chain.”

Moving 'Heaven and Earth'

The MV Dali was a Sri-Lanka-bound container ship that crashed into one of the Key Bridge piers at a speed of 8 knots, or approximately 9 miles per hour, causing the bridge span to break and tumble into the water. The ship’s crew issued a mayday call before the crash to inform local authorities the 985-foot-long vessel had lost power.

Six construction workers who were on the bridge at the time the Dali struck are presumed dead, and two survived.

Lynn Stacy, managing director at OEC Group’s Liquid Logistics Division, said the lack of standardization around tugboat escorts for the embarkation of container ships — a requirement currently in use by the Port of Houston — is an issue that will likely be resolved through a federal requirement.

These escorts are not mandatory unless ordered by local harbor pilots or the U.S. Coast Guard due to weather, cargo, or traffic safety concerns. Each U.S. port sets its own rules, which has resulted in a patchwork approach.

Several agencies and branches of the U.S. government are investigating the impacts of the bridge collapse on the environment and economy.

EPA Mid-Atlantic Regional Administrator Adam Ortiz said the agency is collaborating with federal and state partners to minimize any potential environmental impacts resulting from the bridge collapse. The EPA has not yet detected any hazardous materials in the water, but the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said some corrosives, flammables, and lithium-ion batteries were released into the water when some of the onboard containers were breached. The NTSB is conducting an investigation into the crash of the Dali and the bridge failure.

The Coast Guard has dispatched Unified Command divers to inspect the wreckage site.

Maryland Gov. Wes Moore’s administration requested $60 million in emergency funds from the Biden Administration to pay for initial mobilization, operations, and debris recovery.

President Joe Biden indicated in his remarks following the bridge collapse on 26 March 2024 that he planned to “move heaven and earth to reopen the port and rebuild the bridge as soon as humanly possible.” Biden visited the wreckage site on 5 April 2024 to reiterate the federal government’s support for the recovery and rebuilding efforts in Baltimore.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced 4 April 2024 it had developed a tentative timeline for reopening the Port of Baltimore, with a limited access channel for one-way traffic in and out of the port for barge container service and vessels that move automobiles and farm equipment by the end of April and restoring the port to normal capacity by the end of May.

“It’s my intention that federal government will pay for the entire cost of reconstructing that bridge, and I expect Congress to support my effort,” Biden added.

Maryland Transportation Authority (MDTA) chief financial officer Deborah Sharpless said during a 4 April 2024 board meeting that the insurance policy for the bridge has a maximum of $350 million, with a deductible of $50 million.

Preventing Future Tragedies

Supply chain and transportation experts outside of the government also have weighed in on the bridge collapse.

Robert Khachtratryan, founder and CEO of Freight Right Global Logistics, said port authorities should consider implementing regular and thorough inspections of critical infrastructure, including bridges and tunnels, to identify potential weaknesses and promptly address maintenance needs.

When managing the rebuild of the Key Bridge and navigating the reopening of the Port of Baltimore, Khachtratryan recommended port officials pursue a series of measures aimed at preventing future crises:

  • Conduct comprehensive risk assessments to identify potential hazards and vulnerabilities in infrastructure, considering factors such as age, weather conditions, and traffic volume.
  • Invest in advanced technologies like sensors, drones, and monitoring systems to detect early signs of structural issues, monitor traffic patterns, and ensure proactive maintenance.
  • Develop and regularly update emergency response plans in collaboration with local authorities, including protocols for communication, evacuation, and incident management.
  • Collaborate with structural engineers, safety experts, and relevant stakeholders to leverage their expertise in evaluating infrastructure integrity and recommending preventive measures.

Ports competing with Baltimore for business, such as the Port of Virginia and the Port of New York and New Jersey, may have an opportunity to attract new customers and increase their market share, especially if they can offer efficient and reliable services while the Port of Baltimore is inaccessible, Khachatryan added.

One of the most significant challenges facing port cities and supply chain operators in the wake of the Key Bridge crisis is the additional volume of diverted traffic, said Don Maier, associate professor of practice in supply chain logistics at the University of Tennessee’s Global Supply Chain Institute (GSCI).

“There will be a delay in receiving container freight, particularly in the first few weeks of the crisis,” Maier said. “As the diverted freight becomes the ‘new temporary normal,’ that delay will be included in the plans, and the rest of the supply chain can adjust to that schedule. Shipping and receiving will take longer but become reliable, a key factor in logistics planning and operations.”

Careful management and mitigation of supply chain risk has become a hallmark of the industry, said Ted Stank, co-executive director of GSCI. In order to fortify their supply chains against natural disasters or accidents caused by human error, Stank recommends businesses consider taking the following steps:

  • Conduct reassessment of global supply chains to ensure redundant sources of supply and to avoid areas with a high likelihood of disruption.
  • Capture and track information far up the supply chain flow.
  • Apply agile and responsive management of alternate freight and transportation lanes.
  • Collaborate within and across companies to take advantage of complementary strengths and capabilities.
  • Innovatively use new data sources and information technology applications to better assess and respond to risk.
  • Continually adapt performance measures to determine risk resilience.

Experts also emphasized the importance of diversifying supply chains to minimize the impact of future disruptions.

“Spreading your sourcing and logistics across multiple geographies is key,” Dai said. “Building these relationships with partners near and far can insulate you from the ripple effects of a major disruption.”

The rerouting of traffic around I-695 due to bridge-related closures is another concern, as cargo is funneled through trucking and rail freight out of Baltimore. Advanced route planning, predictive analytics, and real-time monitoring systems using the latest GPS and IoT (Internet of Things) technology, can enhance safety, significantly reducing incident rates, especially when alternative routes are limited and safety regulations vary across jurisdictions, Khachatryan said.

“The integration of technology and data analytics is pivotal for advancing safety and compliance in HAZMAT transportation,” Khachatryan said. “GPS and IoT devices enable continuous monitoring of HAZMAT shipments, ensuring immediate response to any deviations or emergencies. Advanced algorithms can predict potential route hazards, enabling preemptive rerouting and minimizing risks.”

The lack of real-time visibility into what's being transported by rail through densely populated areas adds another layer of safety concerns that could be solved with future legislation and stronger infrastructure, Dai said.

“Lawmakers are pushing for stricter regulations and infrastructure upgrades, but the industry has resisted,” Dai said. “Solving this HAZMAT headache will take some creative thinking and a real commitment to public safety along this critical transportation artery.”

About the author: Stefan Modrich is a Washington, D.C.-based reporter for 3E. He covers the latest developments in environmental health and safety policy and regulation. Modrich previously wrote for S&P Global Market Intelligence, The Arizona Republic, and Chicago Tribune. He is an alumnus of Arizona State University and the University of Zagreb.