Supply chain implications of the Baltimore bridge collapse

In the early moments of March 26th, 2024, the Francis Scott Key Bridge, in Baltimore, Maryland, was struck by the container ship Dali, taking out one of its support pillars, causing it to collapse, and shutting down the Port of Baltimore to freight traffic. The structure was the third longest continuous truss bridge in the world, carrying an estimated 11.5 million vehicles annually.

The port will be closed for the foreseeable future, although crews have cleared temporary routes for the 10 ships stuck inside the harbor. This is significant to the North American supply chain; it is the ninth busiest port in the United States, processing a record 1.1 million containers of cargo in 2023. The total value of goods travelling through the port each year totals over $80 billion. It is the furthest inland port in the country.

What passes through the port?

Top exports passing through the Port of Baltimore includes coal, natural gas, and vehicles. Its largest bulk imports are vehicles, sugar, and paper/paperboard. Baltimore is the busiest US port for car shipments, and also the largest by volume for handling large equipment, such as farm and construction machinery.

Over 106,000 tonnes of furniture, 738,000 tonnes of newsprint, 36,000 tonnes of alcoholic beverages, and 83,000 tonnes of meat and seafood entered the port in 2022. Imports of plastics and rubber totalled more than 221, 000 tonnes that year.

So, what passes through this port? Everything. Every day the port is closed has a huge economic impact on the economy.

Headaches, not a crisis

With infrastructure this crucial down, the question on your mind may be, will I experience delays on my essential goods for my business? That’s an entirely reasonable concern, given the circumstances. Fortunately, the answer is, not as many or for as long as you’d expect.

Despite the volume of goods passing through the Port of Baltimore, there are many other east coast ports operating while Baltimore is out of commission. In fact, the port only handles about 4% of east coast trade volumes. Ports in Norfolk, Philadelphia, and Savannah should be able to absorb additional traffic. However, not all of these ports are equipped to handle ships of the same size.

Some goods – such as coal, vehicles, auto parts, and farm equipment – cannot be rerouted as easily. These goods require specialized equipment to load ships, barges, and transport trucks not available at other east coast ports.

Coal exports can be rerouted to other ports with infrastructure to support its shipment, but they are further away and will require additional transport measures – via transport truck or river barge – causing delays. However, experts predict these delays are unlikely to have a large impact on commerce.

The auto industry will not fare so well due to the need for what’s called “ro-ro” or roll-on-roll-off equipment to take cars from ship to dock to transport trailer. Most automakers have released statements that they expect the current stock to tide them over until temporary routes are established, but that contingency plans are in place should there be further delays.

The pause in maritime traffic at the Port of Baltimore adds one more point of pressure for trade in the region. This may lead more shippers that have a choice to send more freight through west coast ports, which have not suffered much from other major supply chain issues like the disruptions in the Red Sea and Panama. While the nation can adapt to the interruption, this will likely have a lasting economic impact on the port.

In conclusion…

When the bridge is removed from the water and the port can reopen, tunnels under the Patapsco River will keep the port from being completely debilitated by the collapse. Without the bridge, hazardous waste and large equipment routes will continue to be severely impacted as they are not permitted and cannot fit in the tunnels.

The good news is that many companies have learned from the pandemic and now have contingency plan for events such as these, making delays last weeks, rather than months. The citizens of Baltimore are likely to feel the effects much longer.

The incident does leave the port with an opportunity to innovate and update their infrastructure to accommodate larger ships more easily. Rebuilding the bridge will take years, but the end result will be more capable of withstanding any potential impact.