Impacts of the Baltimore Bridge Collapse on Access to Its Main Port Terminal Facilities, 2024

Impacts of the Baltimore Bridge Collapse on Access to Its Main Port Terminal Facilities 2024

On Tuesday, March 26, 2024, around 1:30 AM, the containership MV Dali (neopanamax class of a length of 300 meters and a capacity of 10,000 TEU), likely due to a major electric power failure (note: the investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board has yet to issue its official conclusion), lost steering and collided (an allision since the ship was the only moving object) with a pier of the cross harbor Francis Scott Key Bridge (inaugurated in 1977). The ship was managed by the Singaporean shipowner Synergy and was chartered by Maersk.

The event resulted in the complete collapse of the bridge into the port access channel, which was blocked, cutting access to the great majority of its marine terminals to the high seas. 10 other large merchant ships were stranded in the harbor, including three bulk carriers, one car carrier, two general cargo ships, and one tanker. Further, two cargo ships of the US Maritime Administration (MARAD) Ready Reserve Force were stranded, undermining the capability for a rapid deployment of military cargo overseas. If the event had taken place during the day, particularly during rush hour, the loss of life would have been major since the bridge handled about 34,000 vehicle crossings per day.

Baltimore is considered a mid-sized port in the American context. The scale of this blockage can be better understood by looking at the composition of the port’s traffic and the main terminal facilities handling it (see the above map):

  • Containers. Seagirt Marine Terminal is the main facility that handled 1.1 M TEUs in 2023. Baltimore is a smaller hub, particularly compared with New York/New Jersey (7.8 M TEU) and Norfolk (3.3 M TEU). There is capacity for ports on the East Coast to handle the diversion in container traffic, particularly to Norfolk, Virginia, which is nearby. Still, this divergence also required inland transport capacity, such as drayage, to be readjusted with longer transits.
  • Vehicles. Baltimore is the largest car transit platform in the United States, handling 750,000 vehicles, including 417,000 automobiles, in 2023. The proportion is 75% of the volume concerns vehicle imports and 25% exports. implying that the core focus is handling imports. These vehicles are mostly handled by three large facilities, including Dundalk, Fairfield, and Chesapeake terminals. Handling vehicles requires a large amount of parking space, specialized labor and parts, which makes this sector more difficult to reroute to other ports.
  • Coal. Baltimore exported 22 million tons of high-quality metallurgical coal in 2023 through its Consol Marine Terminal and Curtis Bay facility. Since the coal is for exports, there are limited supply impacts within the US, but purchasers of the coal had to temporarily find alternative sources or delay their procurement.
  • Cruises. The Maryland Cruise Terminal handled 440,000 passengers in 2023, mainly through Carnival and Royal Caribbean. The blockage forced two Caribbean cruises home-ported in Baltimore to be diverted to Norfolk. Cruisers were offered shuttles to bring them back to Baltimore (drive to cruises). During the blockage, both cruise likes transferred their home port to Norfolk.
  • Breakbulk. Mainly handling wood and paper products through the South Locust facility. One particular commodity is gypsum, an important construction material.
  • Domino Sugar Plant. For more than 100 years, the plant has been a major producer, refining about 855,000 tons of sugar per year.
  • US Coast Guard Yard. The Coast Guard has a major maintenance facility that is responsible for its entire fleet of 240 cutters.

This port blockage is likely to be the most expensive in recent history since it was associated with the complete destruction of a major bridge, loss of life of six people, heavy damage to the containership and a portion of its cargo, a dozen ships stranded in the harbor, reduced capabilities of the US military and Coast Guard, loss of income for the port authority and terminals and the multiple of disruption in the related supply chains. The bridge, which took five years to build, will likely take a similar amount of time to rebuild.

On April 1st, a temporary navigation channel of 11 feet was opened to allow tug boats and barges to better access the stranded ships. On April 3rd, a second temporary channel of 14 feet was opened, allowing the first limited commercial navigation. On April 25, a 35-foot limited access channel was opened to allow ships stranded in the harbor since the bridge collapsed to exit. The first containership to enter the Baltimore harbor was on April 27 when a 2,800 TEU feeder ship was able to use the temporary channel. On May 20, after the Dali was pulled away, a 50-foot and 400-foot wide channel was reopened, allowing the return of regular commercial services. On June 11, the navigation channel was fully reopened, two and a half months after the event.

The blockage also resulted in ports and regulators having a closer look at the vulnerability of their critical infrastructure and the risks related to large containerships navigating harbor channels.