Impact of the Baltimore Bridge Disaster (Updated)

Here’s a blogger I haven’t linked to in a while. Laughing Wolf speculates on what the disaster that took out a span of the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore might have:

Baltimore is about the 12th or 13th busiest port in the United States. For all intents and purposes, consider it offline for at least a year. For the next few months, the ships that are there are likely to stay there, and no new ships will arrive. This is going to have several major impacts.

First, goods that would normally arrive there and be distributed will not. This is going to impact logistics and supplies in the mid-Atlantic region rather significantly. Second, Baltimore is on the ropes financially and otherwise. Right now, I sure don’t have a clue how bad the impact will be to a city already teetering on the brink, other than to say it’s going to be very, very bad. Third, how bad it will hit our national economy is something I don’t really want to think about right now. It’s not going to be good, but I can see scenarios where the level of suck could truly sucketh mightier than a Hoover. Fourth, don’t forget that the bridge is part of a major interstate, and a good stretch of 465 is now offline. That will impact not only interstate transportation, but will hamstring a significant segment of local regular traffic as well.

Read the whole thing.

I suspect he might be surprised at how quickly the port could be reopened. That doesn’t require a full repair—just the clearing of the fallen bridge blocking the waterway.

Still, the port is likely to be inaccessible for weeks or longer. We’ll need to wait to see what will actually happen.

The president has made some pledges related to the disaster. ABC News reports:

President Joe Biden gave remarks Tuesday on the Baltimore bridge collapse, telling residents “we’re going to stay with you as long as it takes.”

“It’s my intention that the federal government will pay for the entire cost of reconstruction in that bridge. I expect the Congress to support my effort,” Biden said from the White House.

“This is going to take some time,” the president said, adding, “We’re not leaving until this job gets done.”

I think we might want to reflect on that a bit. How will it work? For example, the way the Interstate Highway System is organized, the federal government pays the bulk of the expense for new construction while state and local governments are responsible for the bulk of upkeep of interstates within their borders.

I can see a role for federal funds in this disaster since it has interstate and, indeed, national implications but IMO pledging the federal government to bear “the entire cost of construction” is excessive. It introduces substantial moral hazard.

I’m starting to see some finger-pointing about the disaster. To the best of my understanding the bridge was recently rated fair not poor. I don’t believe it was prioritized in the infrastructure bill enacted in the early days of the Biden Administration. Major incidents involving ships colliding with pylons don’t appear to be commonplace but they aren’t unheard of, either.


Does anyone know if a civil suit has been filed against the owner or operator of the container ship yet? This incident was no “act of God”. It doesn’t need to have been deliberate to be actionable.

I’m beginning to hear complaints that our infrastructure is not suitable for the transportation needs of today. Does that have things the right way around? Maybe the container ships trying to enter harbors are not suitable to task.

17 comments… add one
  • CuriousOnlooker Link

    I was perusing Wikipedia and it seems to indicate much (all?) of its cost was financed by the State of Maryland via a bond in the late 60’s early 70’s. I’m guessing the articles don’t mention the Federal Government paying funds direct to the state government for general transporting infrastructure — and money is fungible.

    There was nothing that could have been done to make the bridge survive except if they made the crossing a tunnel. A 100,000 ton cargo ship going against a bridge support structure is like a freight train hitting a car.

  • My understanding is that the bridge was built in the 1970s to avoid trucks carrying hazardous materials from going through the tunnel there.

  • Drew Link

    Ahem. Moral hazard=buying votes.

    I’m rather sanguine. I think Biden will push for funds, what with him having taken all those train trips over the bridge…….wait,what? You mean the bridge doesn’t have train tracks. Huh? I guess Joe should stick to burnt penis tall tales…..

  • Drew Link

    And now for something completely different.

    With national implications one should be able to see a role for the Feds. But the locals should bear a large portion of the costs. It’s their economy that benefits most. I’m sure they have a rainy day fund. (Snicker).

  • CuriousOnlooker Link

    The actual impact on the national or even the regional economy is negligible.

    Baltimore was the 6th largest port on the East Coast, serving only 10% of the cargo volume of the largest port (Newark / New York); even closer by, Norfolk, Virginia serves more than double the volume of Baltimore.

  • With national implications one should be able to see a role for the Feds. But the locals should bear a large portion of the costs.

    That’s basically my view.

    By “moral hazard” I meant that confidence that the federal government would pick up the maintenance tab eventually tends to discourage state and local governments from maintaining their own infrastructure.

  • Drew:

    Maryland has a Rainy Day Fund and last year the state ran a surplus.

  • bob sykes Link

    You’re right that once the bridge wreckage is cleared the port can be reopened, but that will take several months.

    The bigger problem is that all, 100%, of American seaports are obsolete, and none of them can accept modern ultra large container ships. For that matter, neither can the upgraded Panama Canal locks. The problems are inadequate navigation channel depth, lack of wharf length, much too small cargo cranes, lack of laydown area, and lack of automation.

    American infrastructure is inadequate and obsolete across the board, transportation, communications, power generation and distribution, all of it. Basically we’re living off the 1960’s construction splurge.

    Of course, every aspect of our culture, economy and politics peaked in the 60’s, and we have been sliding down ever since.

    PS. Some engineers have noted that the FSK Bridge lacked the usual bumper (dolphin) protection for its piers. Although the Dali might be big enough to defeat such protection were it in place.

  • CuriousOnlooker Link

    “Does anyone know if a civil suit has been filed against the owner or operator of the container ship yet?”

    I believe either Bloomberg or Wall Street Journal covered it.

    The answer is not yet, but expected to. The articles say that liability could be limited depending what the root cause of the accident is and aspects of maritime law.

  • Drew Link

    Dave –

    I stand corrected, and surprised. Do you know its size relative to this issue?

    In fact, I’m shocked. If I was to venture a guess as to states that matter to me, I’d bet FL has one, NC might, and GA……..hmmmm. Perhaps not. Does IL?

  • Drew Link

    “PS. Some engineers have noted that the FSK Bridge lacked the usual bumper (dolphin) protection for its piers. Although the Dali might be big enough to defeat such protection were it in place.”

    Bob. You are a civil engineer, right? Have you heard the estimates of the momentum of that vessel? My god. This is a situation where you simply cannot design bridges to be hit by the equivalent of an aircraft carrier.

  • There are two obvious solutions. One is to remove the bridge permanently and the alternative is to prohibit vessels of that size and load from entering the port.

    What size support pylons would be needed to allow a container ship the size of the Dali to strike the pylon without harming the bridge? How many of those pylons would be needed to prevent the collapse of the bridge should one be taken out? Would pylons of that size be so large they would make the question moot since container ships couldn’t enter the port anyway? Note that the Dali is not a particularly large container ship.

    That brings up another question. Should we be subsidizing container ships? Spending to allow container ships of, apparently unlimited size and load to enter a port is a subsidy. If this a national question or a question for Maryland?


    Illinois’s rainy day fund (officially the “Budget Stabilization Fund”, established in 2000) contains about $2 billion.

  • steve Link

    Sounds to me like the engineering community is split on the issue. A San Fran bridge did survive a collision in 2007 but it sounds like it was a bit smaller ship.


  • CuriousOnlooker Link

    My guess is the cost to design a bridge that can withstand a direct hit of a 100,000 ton ship to its support would be high enough that its cheaper to build a tunnel.

    The fact it is a bridge instead of a tunnel is a choice. The crossing was originally conceptualized as a tunnel in the 60’s but turned into a bridge in the 70’s to save money.

  • Andy Link

    I’ve seen other bridges where essentially small artificial islands are built to protect the piers.

    Now that the bridge has been destroyed, a new one with a different design can be built that won’t need piers near the main channel.

    As far as suing goes, the ship is owned by a Singapore-based company, which is owned by some Hong Kong group/conglomerate. A different Singapore-based company operated the ship.

    As far as I can tell, there are no US connections, so I’m not sure how a lawsuit works in that case.

  • Drew Link

    So I have a follow-up question. Its academic, I guess. If all these states have these large rainy day funds, why do they all run to the Feds when disasters occur? Perhaps not rainy day funds, but slush funds?

  • I presume it is both expedient and opportunistic.

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