Tuesday, April 16, 2024
Work begins on cleaning up the Baltimore bridge site. Photo: PBS
Guest ContributionsOpinion/ColumnTrucking

Baltimore bridge collapse means months of turmoil

“Effects on supply chain unlike anything ever experienced”

by Don Taylor

On Tuesday March 26, the Singaporean-registered container ship Dali experienced an as yet undetermined malfunction and collided with the southern support town for the Frances Scott Key bridge spanning the entrance to Baltimore Harbour. Many people I’ve talked to about the incident were of the “Oh man, that sucks!” attitude.  While that statement is true, the full effect of the incident will be long term and far reaching. 

I have a bit of a unique situation, as I have been over this bridge many times, servicing the Sparrow’s Point Industrial Park, which is immediately north of the bridge. I also have some shipboard experience from my time in the Canadian navy and one of the many drills we undertake is a steering gear failure. 

As for the impact of this bridge closure, the effects on the supply chain will be unlike anything we have ever experienced. Baltimore Harbour is one of only 11 deep water ports in the US, with a minimum depth of 50 feet, where most other ports have a maximum depth of 35-40 feet.  The Port of Baltimore is home to numerous marine terminals, the three largest being Dundalk, Fairfield and Seagrist.  The harbor is also a port of call for cruise ships, so with all the traffic in and out of the harbour, it’s almost a marine traffic jam at the best of times.  

So just how big of an impact is the bridge collapse? It’s epic.  There is only one way in and out of the harbour, and it’s closed for the foreseeable future. 

First off, until they can rule it out, it must be treated as a potential murder. I know how foolish this sounds, but it is what it is. Once that hurdle is cleared, the accident investigation needs to be completed. I believe the ship’s “black box” has been removed and the data is being looked at as well as the actions of the harbour pilot.

All ships operating in restricted waters are required by law to have at least one local pilot on board who is trained and certified to operate the size and class of ship in the particular waterway. Once that investigation is completed, the clean up and repairs can begin. Clean up alone could take a month or more, as part of the bridge is lying under 50 feet of water, and while working that deep isn’t hard, the current will make it challenging.

Before they can even think about cleaning up the wreckage, it needs to be inspected to see exactly what kind of equipment will be needed. Some pieces will be small enough to recover, while other pieces will need to be cut down to make recovery possible. It took five years to construct the bridge, but it shouldn’t take that long to rebuild it. 

In the meantime, the ripple effects will be felt worldwide. The other ten deep water ports on the east coast can accommodate the ship traffic, but whether or not they can accommodate the additional capacity is as of yet unknown.

In addition, the closure of the harbour cuts in half the number of facilities equipped to handle vehicles.  Fairfield Marine Terminal is dedicated to RORO (roll on/roll off) cargo. Fairfield has two berths which can turn a ship around in 36 hours and over 60 acres for storing vehicles. With this terminal effectively closed indefinitely, that leaves Long Beach CA as the only facility in the US to handle vehicular imports and exports. This means that imported vehicle prices will jump as the supply is reduced, and what supply there will be delayed as work will be dependent upon the availability of storage capacity, tugboats and harbour pilots to move ships into around and out of the harbour. 

Until this terrible accident is sorted out, cleaned up and the bridge is rebuilt, it going to be a bit of feast-and-famine. Those working at the Baltimore terminal will likely be laid off once all the freight on the docks and ships are rerouted away from the port. That said, a lot of truckers will find additional work from having to divert to different ports until the port of Baltimore is once again ready to start shipping and receiving cargo. 

Until then, though, it’s going to be chaos.  

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Don Taylor is a full-time professional Trucker and author of works including “Stories from the Road: My Years as a Long Haul Trucker.”