Francis Scott Key Bridge Collapse: What Are the Impacts on Trade Shipping and Will They Affect Jacksonville?

The collapse of Baltimore, Maryland’s Francis Scott Key Bridge this past March 26, 2024, was an unanticipated, deadly tragedy. While we mourn the lives lost, we are forced to ponder the impacts of the event, how such an accident could occur in this era, and ultimately how the collapse is impacting the shipping market, including Jacksonville’s JAXPORT.

How It Happened:

First, we need to understand how the accident happened. While the investigation into the exact mechanism failures and liabilities remains ongoing, we do know that the collapse can be attributed directly to the collision impact of the cargo ship Dali, which became disabled during transit. During a routine pass through the port, shortly after commencing its scheduled journey to Sri Lanka, a mayday call was issued reporting loss of power and unresponsive steering, including the rudder. Though the warnings weren’t enough to evacuate the construction team working on potholes, they did provide enough notice to clear traffic and prevent even further loss of life. The Dali was transporting 4,700 containers at the time of the accident, though its maximum capacity is 10,000 20-foot (6-meter) containers, according to an article by PBS News Hour, and further details can be found within. Per the article, the Dali had undergone scheduled inspections, including just this past September (2023) by the U.S. Coast Guard while in New York. No problems were identified at that time and the ship also underwent routine engine maintenance prior to leaving Baltimore. With this knowledge, it appears that the collision was just a tragic accident, though changes in inspection timelines and/or protocols may be warranted in the future within the industry. More details about the mechanical failure and possible changes to how cargo vessels are maintained can be found in this article published by the New York Times on March 30, 2024, “Baltimore Investigation Turns to Ship’s Deadly Mechanical Failure.”

As a result of the bridge collapse, the Port of Baltimore is impassable. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is working round-the-clock to clear debris from the waterway with a plan for reopening the port by this May. Sonar images of bridge wreckage under the water’s surface exhibit just how enormous the task of clearing the passage remains to be. Due to the status of the port, the Associated Press reports that the Port of Baltimore will open a third port utilizing the state’s rainy day fund that will also provide financial assistance for employees affected by the bridge collapse. According to the article, Maryland Senator Ben Cardin states, “We now have two alternative channels that are open. We have a third channel that’ll be open this month that will deal with the majority of traffic into the port of Baltimore. And by the end of May we hope to have the entire channel reopened.” Even with some transport continuing through the port, several companies have had to divert their cargo and container vessels, primarily to other ports along the east coast. For the United States, coal exports will take a huge hit. The Hill published an article by Zack Budryk anticipating a “one-third” reduction in U.S. coal exports, at least through the summer with hopes of recovery towards the end of the year. Here in Jacksonville, though our JAXPORT won’t see many extra container ships. Chairman Dan Bean mentioned in a recent report by News4Jax that “only one” additional cargo vessel transporting automobiles was scheduled for Jacksonville, which our port could easily accommodate. He is also unconcerned with the likelihood of a similar accident happening at our Blount Island Marine Terminal near our city’s tallest bridge, the Dames Point. Jacksonville Mayor Donna Deegan also reassured the community in a recent Florida Times-Union article that our waterways and vessel traffic under the Dames Point bridge are not in danger. According to the article, Deegan points out that the bridge has reinforcements, “large concrete structures called ‘dolphins’ for protecting the bridge’s piers if a ship were to sail off course. The bridge also has sensors on the bottom of the bridge that gives real-time information on the distance from the river surface to the bottom of the bridge so pilots know how much clearance exists.”

As the east coast accepts diverted cargo ships and containers, alleviating some of the supply-chain impact of the Key bridge collapse, one Jacksonville-based company will see delays as a result. The Port of Baltimore is a major hub for CSX Corporation, a railroad company. Shipments including coal and other freight will be affected but the company is working diligently to address delays as quickly as possible. In a March 27th emailed statement published in the Jacksonville Daily Record, CSX expressed, “While freight traffic has not been entirely halted in the region [Baltimore], certain commodities have been affected by the incident. CSX is actively communicating with customers to provide updates on their shipment statuses as the situation evolves.”

All in all, the collapse of the Francis Scott Key bridge in Baltimore last month was a tragic accident that we should expect to precipitate change among many facets of the shipping industry. While the actual effects of vessel diversion and container transport will indeed cause some delay for many corporations, and inevitably some added costs and customer backlash, the major changes we can expect to see once investigations into the event have confirmed details will likely focus on regulations. The tragedy has highlighted a need for review and updates to current bridges and support structures and additional checklists during routine maintenance. Even waterway traffic patterns are now under scrutiny. In light of the devastation, we can only hope this misfortune will elicit positive evolution for the shipping industry and its infrastructure as a whole.

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