Baltimore Faces Long-Term Impacts From Bridge Collapse and Waterway Closure

Some 31,000 vehicles crossed Key Bridge each day, while the port directly provides some 15,000 jobs

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Baltimore’s Francis Scott Key Bridge collapsed early Tuesday morning after a malfunctioning cargo ship collided with its supports, causing the presumed death of six construction workers filling potholes on the bridge, and blocking access to one of busiest ports in the nation. 

While the city is reeling from the immediate tragedy of the bridge’s stunning collapse, its longer-term repercussions on the greater Baltimore region are just beginning to take shape, and are likely to be felt for months or even years. 

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“We want to express our deepest thoughts to the individuals and families involved in this morning’s tragic incident,” a representative for the Maryland Port Administration told the Commercial Observer in an emailed statement Tuesday. 

The two most immediate concerns are the bridge traffic that will need to be rerouted, and the loss of waterway access to the Port of Baltimore. All vessel traffic into and out of the port was suspended indefinitely in the immediate aftermath of the collapse, though the port remained open to land vehicles, per the agency. “This does not mean the Port of Baltimore is closed. Trucks are being processed within our marine terminals. At this time we do not know how long vessel traffic will be suspended. As soon as that is determined we will provide an update,” the spokesperson said.

The bridge spanned 1.6 miles across the Patapsco River, and was used by about 31,000 vehicles per day, or about 11.3 million per year, according to the Maryland Transportation Authority. Trucks accounted for nearly 5,000 of those daily crossings, bringing some $28 million worth of goods with them each year. 

With the bridge out of commission, drivers essentially have two options to get to their destinations. They can travel through Baltimore using the Fort McHenry or Baltimore Harbor Tunnels, which already see a respective average of roughly 116,000 and 77,000 vehicles per day, or use Interstate 695 (the Baltimore Beltway) to circumvent the city altogether, with the latter automatically becoming mandatory for truckers hauling hazardous or oversize loads. 

Either way, the gridlock will not be pretty. Aside from baseline inner city traffic, which is often anxiety-inducing in the best of times, the beltway is notoriously traffic heavy with frequent construction delays. An advisory issued by the Maryland State Highway Administration on Tuesday warned travelers that sections of the beltway are currently closed and to expect adding “significant driving time” until further notice. 

The collapse’s impact on Baltimore’s port, which directly supports more than 15,000 jobs, will have far-reaching effects. 

Although not as large as ports in states such as New York or New Jersey in terms of annual volume, Baltimore’s port handled 52.3 million tons of international cargo in 2023 alone, valued at nearly $81 billion, according to Maryland data. That’s in addition to 11.7 million tons of general cargo handled last year by the port’s public terminals. The port does however regularly rank first in the nation in terms of car shipments, handling nearly 850,000 autos and light trucks last year, per the state’s data. 

Though much easier said than done, that cargo can be rerouted to other ports relatively close by, such as in Norfolk, Va., or Newark, N.J., said Ned Brady, principal of Lee & Associates’ Chesapeake region. Yet experts are estimating that the port’s waterway closure will cost the region $15 million per day, $9 million of which is directly related to cargo, Brady said. 

“The problem isn’t so much the time delay in getting this cargo where it needs to go. It’s cost,” Brady said. “They’re probably going to be forced to move a lot of this stuff by rail once it gets to shore, since trucking it would just be untenable.”

Both Maryland Gov. Wes Moore and Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott declared states of emergency on Tuesday morning, freeing up funds and public safety resources, including some from the federal government, to help deal with the disaster. Beyond that, the best thing the local and federal governments can do to relieve impacts caused by the collapse, Brady said, is to remove the debris and get the waterway back in working order as quickly as possible. 

“Because the port is so far inland, you could hit about a third of the entire U.S. population within eight hours,” Brady said. “[The bridge collapse] impacts so many people it’s not even funny.”

A new bridge, however, likely won’t be completed until 2030 at the earliest, Brady predicted. The traffic delays, particularly for commuters coming from communities southeast of Baltimore such as Dundalk, are worrying to Beth Rheingold, president of the Greater Baltimore Chamber of Commerce

“What concerns me is that the bridge connected the city to Dundalk and the region surrounding it, which is very working class,” Rheingold said. “Much of that workforce depends on that bridge to get to work every day, and they’re going to be forced to reroute. That could have enormous impacts on businesses everywhere in the region, especially the smallest ones, not to mention how it affects [the workers’] dinner table.”

Yet Rheingold was quick to point out that the sky hasn’t fallen just yet. In her conversations with chamber members over the past several days, Rheingold said that most have a “wait and see” attitude toward the situation before taking action to shore up added expenses or worker delays. Meanwhile, Rheingold said that the Maryland Chamber of Commerce was in the early stages of preparing a “disaster relief force” to help businesses wounded by the bridge collapse. 

While the region has never experienced this type of crisis before, Rheingold said, the COVID-19 pandemic taught businesses how to cope with severe supply chain and employment strains. To that end, despite incoming hardship for many in the near future, Rheingold doesn’t expect many of those businesses to go belly up. 

“It almost feels like a mini pandemic, but the good news is that we just went through a pandemic not very long ago,” Rheingold said. “It taught us how to survive disasters like this. I think people especially won’t let small mom-and-pop businesses go under — we know we can rely on people to help us figure it out.”

Nick Trombola can be reached at NTrombola@commercialobserver.com.