Francis Scott Key Bridge

The Francis Scott Key Bridge Collapse: Disrupting Supply Chains and Port Operations

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Matthew Schore
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On March 26, 2024, Maryland’s Francis Scott Key Bridge suffered a catastrophic collapse following a collision with the Singapore-flagged MV Dali container ship. The incident not only caused extensive damage to the 1.6-mile bridge but also blocked access to the crucial Patapsco River, disrupting shipping flows and impacting the entire supply chain.

The Incident and Its Immediate Effects

The collision, which occurred at around 1:35 a.m., resulted in significant debris obstructing the Patapsco River, effectively cutting off access to the Port of Baltimore. As rescue and recovery operations continue, the exact duration of the blockage remains uncertain. This disruption directly affects maritime lanes, forcing carriers to seek alternative ports of call.

Impact on Port Operations

The Port of Baltimore, known for its deep harbor and extensive terminals, stands as a vital gateway for trade in the region. With five public and 12 private terminals, the port handles a substantial volume of cargo annually. However, the collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge has brought operations to a standstill, with ship traffic suspended indefinitely.

Supply Chain Disruptions

The consequences of the bridge collapse extend beyond the immediate vicinity of Baltimore. Over the coming weeks, approximately 107 vessels scheduled to call at the port will need to divert to alternative ports, posing significant challenges for shipping logistics. The ripple effect is felt across various industries, including automotive, agriculture, and industrial equipment.

Heavy Machinery Exports

The Port of Baltimore plays a crucial role in the export of heavy machinery, as highlighted by Stan Shoemaker's analysis. Consider the following HS-10 level exports

in terms of Baltimore's share of U.S. exports:

  • Track-laying Tractors: 84%
  • Agricultural Tractors: 58%
  • Self-propelled Aerial Work Platforms: 52%
  • Track-laying Tractors: 50%
  • Bituminous Coal: 44%
  • Straw Or Fodder Balers: 41%
  • Combine Harvester-threshers: 31%
  • Forestry Machinery: 25%

The collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge poses a significant challenge to the export of these heavy machinery items, with potential repercussions for industries reliant on these products.

Managing Roll On Roll Off Cargo and Trucking Challenges

Not all ports are equipped to handle large volumes of Roll On Roll Off, termed Ro-Ro, cargo due to limitations in capacity and infrastructure. Unlike containerized cargo, which can be easily rerouted using standardized containers, Ro-Ro cargo requires specialized infrastructure, making rerouting a more challenging task.

A sudden surge in Ro-Ro cargo at alternative ports can strain the local trucking industry. These ports may lack the necessary equipment, such as flatbeds and hotshots, and experienced drivers to meet the increased transportation demands. As a result, delays and higher costs may occur for transporting equipment and machinery over long distances.

While containerized cargo can be rerouted more easily due to standardized containers, rerouting Ro-Ro cargo presents unique challenges. Limited port capacity and infrastructure, coupled with potential strains on the local trucking industry, underscore the complexities of managing Ro-Ro cargo in the aftermath of the bridge collapse. As stakeholders work to address these challenges, collaboration and innovative solutions will be crucial in ensuring the smooth flow of goods and minimizing disruptions in the supply chain.

Rail Impact and Intermodal Operations

CSX handles a vast majority of international intermodal volume out of the Port of Baltimore, with most of it destined for Chicago. Norfolk Southern has a minor presence. Analysis with Andrew Hooser indicates that about 3,000 pier containers move between Baltimore and Chicago annually. Comparatively, The Port Authority of New York & New Jersey and The Port of Virginia ship significantly more pier container imports to Chicago per year.

For further reference, Intermodal Association of North America data suggests that about 500 ocean containers moved from Baltimore to Chicago last month, significantly less than the volumes from other East Coast ports.

Economic Ramifications and Mitigation Efforts

In 2023 alone, the Port of Baltimore facilitated trade amounting to $80.8 billion, underscoring its importance in the national and global economy. The sudden disruption caused by the bridge collapse disrupts established trade routes, potentially leading to increased costs, delays, and logistical complexities for businesses and consumers alike.

As industry stakeholders scramble to assess the situation and mitigate the impact, several measures are being considered. Nearby East Coast ports may experience a temporary surge in cargo volume as they absorb traffic redirected from Baltimore. However, the strain on operations at these alternative ports remains a concern.


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