the front of a ship on the water with clear skies and the Key Bridge across the horizon
Francis Scott Key Bridge, September 10, 2014 (Source: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd class Laura Hoover, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons).

Key Bridge Collapse – Transportation Infrastructure and Global Supply Chain

A cargo ship crashed into the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore, Maryland, at approximately 1:30 a.m. on March 26, 2024. The structure collapsed immediately, taking down a major metropolitan roadway and cutting off automobile traffic above and vessel traffic along the Patapsco River, a critical East Coast shipping hub and transportation highway. The region and nation will feel the cascading effects.

The Transportation Systems Sector is one of the nation’s 16 Critical Infrastructure Sectors. Transportation is Emergency Support Function 1. Events like the Key Bridge collapse highlight how vital the transportation networks and their associated infrastructure are to the U.S. economy, national security, and resilience. Transportation networks hold the other 15 sectors together.

On March 23, 2021, the container vessel Ever Given, one of the largest container vessels in the world, ran aground in the Suez Canal, paralyzing the global supply chain. Steven Weiss, the chief underwriting officer and founder of Incarnation Specialty Underwriters, pointed out in a personal conversation on March 26, 2024:

[The Baltimore bridge collapse] is the third disruption to the global supply chain. Low water in the Panama Canal and the ongoing attacks by Houthis on Red Sea shipping are already having a significant impact on maritime commerce. It shows how fragile our global infrastructure is and why we need alternatives thought out in advance.

Baltimore Bridge Collapse

The response to the collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge following the allision (i.e., a vessel striking a fixed object) from the container vessel DALI is but a few hours old. Yet, experts already know that the impact on the nation’s 9th largest port will be enormous and long-lasting. How long-lasting is yet to be determined. However, A port recovery exercise conducted in Houston some 15 years ago using a similar scenario estimated it would be at least 140 days before the port was again open to all vessel traffic. That estimate would only be achievable with a considerable outlay of resources.

There are about 40 vessels currently in the Port of Baltimore, north of the incident site. They will undoubtedly be there for a while. Likewise, about 30 ships waiting to enter the port must reroute to other ports where their cargo can move to their final destinations. This process will involve considerable effort and cost, not only in the facilities and resources needed but also in the fuel required to transport the cargo to end users. Then, there is the impact on Interstate 695, one of the busiest highway corridors in the United States. About 11.5 million vehicles transit this bridge annually, all of which will need to find alternate means through and around the City of Baltimore and Baltimore County, stressing their transportation infrastructure. Dr. Michael Hicks, Ph.D., the director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University, stated in another personal conversation on March 26, 2024:

Baltimore City and County are home to close to 45,000 logistics and warehousing workers, about a third of which are directly employed by the Port of Baltimore. Together, they earn about $2.1 billion in wages and produce $3.7 billion in Gross Domestic Product. While not all of them are directly linked to the port, almost the entire industry is linked to local movement of goods. Thus, an immediate shock would be to idle these workers as products are moved to other ports.

Policymakers will likely push for improvements in the nation’s infrastructure. These ideas will require evaluation for long-term viability, with some undoubtedly being very worthwhile while others less so. All would come with significant costs.

Recommendations for Recovery Efforts

With just over 12 hours since this incident occurred, my initial six recommendations are as follows:

  1. Conduct a regional gap analysis on the transportation infrastructure. Note the areas that are most brittle and need reinforcement to enhance resilience. An example would be to add island protection structures around bridge support columns to minimize the likelihood of another vessel allision causing an incident of this nature. These protections were added to the Sunshine Skyway Bridge following its 1980 incident.
  2. Recovery, including restoration of maritime commerce and reconstruction of the Francis Scott Key Bridge, will be a lengthy process. Weiss noted: “It will be months before Baltimore is fully recovered as a port and years before 695 is rebuilt. Plan for long-term rerouting and alternative plans for your supply chain.”
  3. Test regional recovery plans, with emphasis on the transportation networks. Look at plans, training, resources, capabilities, and facilities. Share after-action reports and implement improvement plans.
  4. Consider if anything can be done for the port workforce and entities that support it, as well as what communities need to do to support economic recovery. Dr. Hicks highlighted that: “A 75 percent port capacity reduction for the equivalent of one year would cost Baltimore County and Baltimore City a combined 35,000 jobs and a loss of 44.5 billion in Gross Domestic Product. [The] combined tax effect would be over $300 million for state and local government, and income losses would be close to $1.8 billion.”
  5. The U.S. Coast Guard employs a Marine Transportation System Recovery Unit (MTSRU) within its Planning Section to help manage the impact on and recovery of the Marine Transportation System. Expand this MTSRU concept into a “Transportation System Recovery Unit” that can prioritize a response and recovery work effort in the wake of an incident.
  6. Build or enhance regional collaboration and information sharing among federal, state, local, tribal, private sector, and international partners and stakeholders. Remember, “It’s all about relationships.”

The Port of Baltimore is the nation’s largest for handling specialized roll-on/roll-off cargo and a considerable amount of bulk cargo, especially steel, agriculture products, and farm and construction machinery. Hicks stated:

This is a first-order shock to the nation’s logistics system that will test our resiliency. The state of Maryland and the city and county of Baltimore will require significant federal assistance.

This incident will find a means to impact everyone, most likely in an increased cost of consumer goods and services. Everyone has a stake in this effort, and everyone needs to contribute to its long-term improvement. Keeping the nation’s ports safe, secure, and resilient is critical.

This article is the first in a series on the March 2024 collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge collapse in Baltimore, MD:

  1. Key Bridge Collapse – Transportation Infrastructure and Global Supply Chain
  2. Week 2 – Restoring Infrastructure and Instilling Resilience
  3. Key Bridge Collapse: Unity of Effort
Joseph J. Leonard Jr.

Joe Leonard, CDR (ret.), is a nationally recognized emergency responder, incident manager, and trainer with 44 years of U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Army, volunteer municipal fire service, and private-sector experience responding to natural disasters, oil spills, hazardous materials releases, marine fires, mass rescue operations, mass care and shelter events, national special security events, and maritime homeland security events. He is currently the president and chief executive officer of the Unified Services Consulting Group, LLC. He was recognized with the prestigious U.S. Navy League’s Captain David H. Jarvis Award for Inspirational Leadership and was named a Fox News “Power Player of the Week” on 11 September 2005 for his services as the FEMA-designated Area Commander-Houston Area Mega-Shelter Operations following landfall of Hurricane Katrina. He holds certifications as a Master Exercise Practitioner, Master Continuity Professional, Certified Emergency Manager, Coast Guard Emergency Management Credential, Certified Homeland Protection Professional, and Certified Port Executive. He has a bachelor’s degree in history from the Virginia Military Institute and a master’s degree in engineering technology from Murray State University. He is a graduate of the National Emergency Management Executive and Advanced Academies.

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