Baltimore Disaster Spurs Calls for Reset of Infrastructure Priorities

Some say Francis Key Bridge could’ve been stouter. Others say nothing built in 1977 can stop the moving mountains of today’s seas. All call for focus on ports.
Baltimore Disaster Spurs Calls for Reset of Infrastructure Priorities
The fallen Francis Scott Key Bridge is pictured in Baltimore, Md., on March 31, 2024. (Mike Pesoli/AP Photos)
John Haughey

The U.S. Coast Guard has opened two channels to allow repair crafts and salvage barges into Baltimore Harbor. However, it will be weeks before container ships can navigate the span of the Patapsco River now blocked by the Francis Key Bridge, which was knocked down by a 95,000-ton cargo ship in a crash that killed six people on March 26.

“This marks an important first step along the road to reopening the port of Baltimore,” Coast Guard Capt. David O'Connell, federal on-scene coordinator, said in an April 1 statement.

He said a third 25-foot-deep channel is being plotted to allow “a lot more commercial vessels” to access the nation’s ninth-busiest commercial port, though he did not specify how long the construction will take.

Efforts to clear debris continued on April 1 with U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dive teams using sonar to assess the debris field. Crews worked on untangling bridge truss steel from the bow of the Dali, a Singapore-flagged vessel. This Maersk-operated leviathan, stretching the length of three football fields, is capable of hauling 4,700 twenty-foot equivalent unit (TEU) cargo containers. It can carry a maximum weight of 262,000 tons in stacks as high as 20 stories.
President Joe Biden, who will tour the broken bridge and the Port of Baltimore on April 5, pledged in the crash’s wake that his administration would “move heaven and earth” to get the channel cleared and the bridge rebuilt.
On March 28, his administration approved $60 million in immediate federal aid requested by Maryland Gov. Wes Moore. The state could end up requesting more than $600 million from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) $1 billion relief fund in the coming months to begin a reconstruction effort, which is estimated to cost between $1 billion and $1.5 billion.
Determining liabilities for inevitable legal claims, including compensating the taxpayers of Baltimore, Maryland, and the United States for costs incurred in rebuilding the bridge and recovering from its economic fallout, will unfold over years.

Already, Singapore’s Grace Ocean Pte Ltd., which owns the Dali, has filed a petition for exoneration from, or limitation of liability from, the crash in the U.S. District Court in Baltimore.

While a slow laborious disaster recovery effort unfolds in Baltimore Harbor and intricate legal tedium clouds the horizon, speculation not only about the bridge itself—why it was so thinly armored—is gaining traction amid calls for a dramatic refocus on the nation’s port infrastructure and its maritime policies, or lack of.

1977 Bridge Versus 2015 Container Ship

It took five years to build the Francis Key Bridge, which opened for traffic in 1977 as a 1.6-mile-long, continuous truss-style bridge that, in addition to serving as the primary road access to the Port of Baltimore, is a vital link in Baltimore’s I-695 beltway.

In the wake of the March 26 Dali crash, many wonder why the bridge was relatively “unprotected” against a ship strike with paltry, or non-existent, “fenders” and “dolphins.”

“Fenders” wrap around bridge support columns or pylons to buffer or deflect a direct strike from a ship, while a “dolphin” is often a pyramid-type encasement filled with rock, slag, or concrete built in front of bridge pylons to deflect or stop a direct strike from a ship.

There’s an ongoing debate among engineers, both professional and self-proclaimed, on maritime news and analysis sites such as Freightwaves, Tradewinds News, Journal of Commerce, Lloyd’s List, Splash 24/7, and about whether the bridge could have better survived a direct hit from the Dali had improvements been made by the city of Baltimore and Maryland Department of Transpiration (MDOT) over the decades.

The Francis Key Bridge had been open for less than three years when the M/V Summit Venture, a 600-foot long, 34,000-ton freighter, knocked down the Skyway Bridge spanning lower Tampa Bay in St. Petersburg, Florida, in May 1980, killing 35 people. It had only been open for six months when it was struck by a ship, causing $500,000 in damage.

Members of the press near the Francis Scott Key Bridge that collapsed after a ship strike in Baltimore, on March 26, 2024. (Madalina Vasiliu/The Epoch Times)
Members of the press near the Francis Scott Key Bridge that collapsed after a ship strike in Baltimore, on March 26, 2024. (Madalina Vasiliu/The Epoch Times)

As a result of the Skyway Bridge collision, the U.S. DOT issued an advisory in 1983, encouraging local port authorities to buttress port infrastructure against ship strikes, despite noting, “It may be extremely difficult to retrofit some existing bridge piers with protective systems.”

Also in 1983, the Federal Highway Administration (FWA) upgraded bridge standards to take “certain impact considerations into account,” including ship strikes.

But bridges such as Francis Key Bridge built before 1983 were exempt, or “grandfathered in.” While girding the bridge with more robust fenders and dolphins has been a recurring item in MDOT’s capital improvement plans, the funding has never been authorized.

Among unfunded Francis Key Bridge improvements is a proposed three-year installation of a fiberglass jacket protection system to brace its pylons beginning in 2029.

A car is halted at the edge of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge across Tampa Bay, Fla., on May 9, 1980, after a freighter struck the bridge during a thunderstorm and tore away a large part of the span. (Jackie Green/AP Photo)
A car is halted at the edge of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge across Tampa Bay, Fla., on May 9, 1980, after a freighter struck the bridge during a thunderstorm and tore away a large part of the span. (Jackie Green/AP Photo)

World Changed, Bridge Didn’t

The criticism is the local port authority and the state failed to adapt as ocean-going container carriers got bigger, posing not only a risk to infrastructure but to the operational viability of ports themselves.

Only two years ago, the MV Ever Forward ran aground in the Patapsco River, nearly closing the Port of Baltimore during the month it took to salvage the ship and re-dredge the shipping channel.

The value of beefing up bridge fenders was illustrated in 2013 when a 752-foot-long tanker crashed into the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, which suffered $1.4 million in damage but was not knocked down.

Why the relatively small dolphins of the Francis Key Bridge were built far enough from the bridge to allow ships to maneuver around them, and why Baltimore and the MDOT did not make improvements in the ‘Big Ship Era’—especially considering that the Delaware Memorial Bridge, located 72 miles north, spent nearly $93 million to upgrade its ’ship collision protection system'—are among the questions the National Safety Transportation Board (NSTB) will ask in its investigation.

“There’s some questions about the structure of the bridge, protective structure around the bridge or around the piers to make sure there isn’t a collapse,” NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy told reporters last week.

“We are aware of what a structure should have. Part of our investigation will be how was this bridge constructed? It will look at the structure itself. Should there be any sort of safety improvements? All of that will be part of our investigation,” she added.

But many say it would not have mattered. No bridge built in 1977, even if retrofitted in most cases, was built to survive being struck by a moving mountain. In the last decade alone, the average capacity of container ships has doubled.

“Right now, I think there’s a lot of debate taking place in the engineering community about whether or not any of those features could have had any role in a situation like this,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told reporters.

“What we do know is a bridge like this one completed in the 1970s was simply not made to withstand a direct impact on a critical support pier from a vessel that weighs about 200 million tons,” he said. “I do not know of a bridge that has been constructed to withstand a direct impact from a vessel of this size.”

Which raises eyebrows far beyond Baltimore.

There are 361 commercial seaports in the United States with more than 20,000 bridges crossing waterways vital to the nation’s economy and security. Few can survive a strike from a contemporary container “mega-ship.”

A Port Authority bus was on a bridge when it collapsed in Pittsburgh's East End, shutting down barge traffic on the upper Ohio River, on Jan. 28, 2022. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
A Port Authority bus was on a bridge when it collapsed in Pittsburgh's East End, shutting down barge traffic on the upper Ohio River, on Jan. 28, 2022. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

20,000 Port Bridges

The Baltimore Harbor disaster has spurred calls for a reset, or overhaul, of the nation’s maritime policies. This would encompass a wide range of initiatives, including enhancing the Pentagon’s sea-lift capacities, reviving the merchant marine, incentivizing investment in American-flagged commercial shippers, and modernizing ports as well as expanding them to enhance supply chain resilience through increased redundancy.

Port infrastructure was already a long-languishing issue when Mr. Biden in a Feb. 21, 2024 executive order directed $20 billion in 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill (BIL) allocations into a five-year grant program dedicated to port improvements.

A growing chorus of critics says it is not nearly enough to overcome decades of neglect in comprehensive federal port investment and a half-century absence—some say abdication—by successive administrations and congresses in sustaining a cohesive national maritime policy.

Many argue that much more than the $20 billion from the $1.2 trillion in infrastructure investments authorized under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) and the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act—slightly more than half of 1 percent—should be directed into port improvements. This includes Congressional Ports Opportunity, Renewal, Trade, and Security (PORTS) Caucus co-chairs Reps. Randy Weber (R-Texas) and Robert Garcia (D-Calif).

Increased funding for ports is certain to surface when the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee’s Coast Guard & Maritime Transportation and Homeland Security subcommittees convene a joint field hearing at the Port of Miami on April 5.

Compared to the $20 billion for ports, BIL includes $110 billion to upgrade bridges. Advocates say that the 20,000 bridges spanning 95,000 miles of coastline, which link 361 commercial ports with railways and roads, should be a priority. These connections facilitate the movement of $4.5 trillion in goods and sustain 23 million American jobs.

Zooming out on the scene in Baltimore Harbor reveals a larger issue with the nation’s port infrastructure. More than 80,000 foreign vessels a year load and unload cargo, and nearly 150 million passengers arrive via cruise ships and ferries. However, none of these ports can safely accommodate the increasing number of ever-larger ships that now ply the seas.

The bigger picture involves restricted national road and rail connectivity to ports that are capable of handling mega-ship container carriers, as well as the overall state of bridges across the country.

Zooming in, nearly every American lives near a bridge in poor condition, with 167 million people traversing them daily, according to estimates from the American Road & Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA).

According to ARTBA’s 2023 Bridge Report, more than 43,000 of the nation’s 615,000 bridges are in poor condition and are considered to be “structurally deficient.”

The Federal Highway Administration rates 17,000 bridges as “fracture critical,” including the Francis Key Bridge. However, the American Society of Civil Engineers’ (ASCE) 2020 Maryland bridges report rated the bridge in good shape, although it cited “growing challenges associated with an aging bridge stock.”
John Haughey reports on public land use, natural resources, and energy policy for The Epoch Times. He has been a working journalist since 1978 with an extensive background in local government and state legislatures. He is a graduate of the University of Wyoming and a Navy veteran. He has reported for daily newspapers in California, Washington, Wyoming, New York, and Florida. You can reach John via email at [email protected]
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