Baltimore Bridge Collapse Reverberates From Cars to Coal

The cargo ship Dali sits in the water after running into and collapsing the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore. (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images/TNS)

(Bloomberg News/TNS) — The 1.6-mile-long bridge collapsed in a matter of seconds. The catastrophic consequences are set to stretch out for weeks. 

As much as 2.5 million tons of coal, hundreds of cars made by Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Co., and lumber and gypsum are threatened with disruption after the container ship Dali slammed into and brought down Baltimore’s Francis Scott Key Bridge in the early hours of Tuesday. 

Six people were presumed dead after a search in the Patapsco River, officials said. The toll could have been far worse except for a mayday call from the Singaporean-flagged vessel as it lost power.

The aftermath of the bridge’s collapse throws another spotlight on the fragile nature of global supply chains that have already been strained by drought in Panama and missile attacks on Red Sea shipping by Yemen-based Houthi terrorists. Docks in New Jersey and Virginia face the threat of being overwhelmed by traffic that’s being forced away from Baltimore, one of the busiest ports on the U.S. East Coast. 

“It’s a large port with a lot of flow through it, so it’s going to have an impact,” John Lawler, Ford’s chief financial officer, told Bloomberg TV. “We’ll work on the workarounds. We’ll have to divert parts to other ports along the East Coast or elsewhere in the country.”

Baltimore handled only about 3% of all East Coast and Gulf Coast imports in the year through Jan. 31, said S&P Global Market Intelligence. But it’s crucial to cars and light trucks, with European carmakers such as Mercedes-Benz Group AG, Volkswagen AG and BMW operating facilities in and around the port. It’s also the second-largest terminal for U.S. exports of coal, with a shutdown potentially hitting shipments to India. 

About a dozen large vessels are stuck inside Baltimore’s harbor as well as a similar number of tug boats, according to IHS Markit and Wood Mackenzie’s Genscape. The list includes cargo ships, automobile carriers and a tanker named the Palanca Rio

That’s just the impact on the port. 

About 35,000 people used the bridge every day. The annual value of goods going over is about $28 billion, according to the American Trucking Associations. 

“We rely on our infrastructure systems for our daily needs, for a huge amount of the goods that we get in the United States from overseas and to have it cut off so suddenly, it’s a huge crisis,” said Yonah Freemark, a researcher at the Urban Institute.

The Francis Scott Key Bridge, named for the man who wrote the text of the Star-Spangled Banner, took five years to build and was completed in 1977. The cost at the time was around $141 million, according to one estimate. A rebuild today is likely to cost “several billion dollars,” said Freemark. 

President Joe Biden said he wants the federal government to pay and vowed “to move heaven and earth to reopen the port and rebuild the bridge.” 

But Baltimore is in for a lengthy reconstruction. It could be weeks before any port operations resume as officials need to recover missing victims, remove bridge debris and the 984-foot Dali from the river and then reopen the blocked channel. 

“This is one of the cathedrals of American infrastructure,” said Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. “The path to normalcy will not be easy, it will not be quick, it will not be inexpensive, but we will rebuild together.”

That’s expected to accelerate a shift of cargo to the West Coast to avoid bottlenecks from Boston to Miami. A sudden 10% to 20% increase in volumes through a port is enough to cause massive backlogs and congestion, according to Ryan Petersen, the founder and chief executive officer of Flexport Inc., a digital freight platform based in San Francisco.

Traversing Maryland, meanwhile, threatens to create headaches for motorists and truckers. A trip from Edgemere heading south to Glen Burnie was about 15 miles over the bridge. It’s 20 miles via the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel. The trip will be even tougher for truckers hauling hazardous materials, which are barred from the tunnel. They’d have to travel 45 miles on the Baltimore Beltway.

The biggest hit though could be to Baltimore itself, a city of close to 600,000 people, already facing stagnation and a number of high-poverty neighborhoods.

The bridge helped connect major parts of Baltimore and was key to its renaissance as a logistics and e-commerce hub after the shuttering of its steel industry. With its deep-water port, shortline railway and well-located interstate highway, the city attracted investors who have been pouring money into redevelopment. 

One of the largest projects, Tradepoint Atlantic, has leased millions of square feet in warehouse space to some of the world’s biggest businesses, including Inc. and FedEx Corp. 

The local president of the International Longshoremen’s Association warned that he has 2,400 ILA members who could soon lose their jobs. 

Facing months of uncertainty, Baltimore and Maryland both declared a state of emergency. 

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