‘The port is the heart of the city’: Baltimore bridge collapse threatens city’s economy

The blocked shipping route adds a new obstacle to a supply chain already affected by the problems in the Red Sea and Panama Canal

Baltimore bridge
View of the container ship 'Dali,' which collided with the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore.Nathan Howard (REUTERS)
Miguel Jiménez

The Francis Scott Key Bridge was an iconic presence in Baltimore Bay. It became a guest star on The Wire, the cult HBO series set in the city. The second season of that series mythologized — or rather demythologized — the port of Baltimore, one of the most important ones on the East Coast. The port not only marks the city for good or for bad. It is its economic engine. But that engine has been paralyzed by the collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge, which, after being struck by the Dali, is now a shapeless mass of iron.

“Thinking first of the people on the bridge. But the mind wanders to a port city strangling,” David Simon, the reporter who created The Wire, posted on X (formerly Twitter) on Tuesday. “All the people who rely on ships in and out. The auto-ship imports, Domino Sugar, coal exports, dockwork, whatever container traffic we didn’t lose to Norfolk. Industries. Jobs. Families.”

It’s a sentiment shared by the citizens of Baltimore. Kenneth, a 64-year-old former port worker, lamented the collapse on Tuesday. “Do you see all those cars?” he said, pointing to an esplanade full of perfectly aligned cars. “All those cars are there to board. I used to do that with a truck, taking cars to and from the port. Coming to pick them up, putting them in my truck and delivering them to our dealers. Cars, trucks, vans, everything. Sometimes containers. This is going to affect many working ports. The port is the heart of the city. It really is.”

In his address on the bridge collapse on Tuesday, U.S. President Joe Biden made it clear that the order of priorities is first rescuing the victims, then unblocking the port, and finally rebuilding the bridge. It is difficult to determine how long it will take for the port to reopen to container and freight ships. After collapsing in an area between 15 and 20 meters deep, the bridge has become a gigantic artificial barrier to the passage of boats.

“To the people of Baltimore, I want to say: We’re with you,” Biden said. “We’re going to stay with you as long as it takes. And like the governor said, you’re Maryland tough, you’re Baltimore strong, and we’re going to get through this together. And I promise: We’re not leaving.”

The president recalled that the port of Baltimore is one of the largest shipping hubs in the country. Last year, it handled a record amount of cargo. In 2023, its private terminals handled 52.3 million tons of foreign cargo worth $80 billion, Maryland Governor Wes Moore announced last month. The Port of Baltimore also receives the largest volume of autos and light trucks in the country. Around 850,000 vehicles pass through the port every year. Moore estimates that in addition to the 15,300 direct jobs, 140,000 jobs are linked to port activities.

“We’re going to get it up and running again as soon as possible,” said Biden from the White House. “Fifteen thousand jobs depend on that port. And we’re going to do everything we can to protect those jobs and help those workers.”

The port’s closure will cause temporary bottlenecks in the supply chain, already affected by low water levels in the Panama Canal and insecurity in the Red Sea — the gateway to the Suez Canal — which are two key infrastructures in the international maritime traffic of goods. Dozens of cargo ships bound for Baltimore remained en route or anchored outside the port awaiting their destination. The impact, in this case, is more local than global.

The Port of Baltimore is among the top 20 ports in the United States in terms of volume of cargo. On the East Coast, it is surpassed by the complex formed by the ports of New York and New Jersey and the port of Virginia. Behind it is the port of Philadelphia.

Some companies consulted by Reuters downplayed the situation. The port is a leader in sugar imports, but the largest U.S. sugar company, ASR Group, says it has six to eight weeks of raw sugar stocks at its Baltimore refinery, which is supplied by ships arriving at the port of Baltimore. BMW does not expect any immediate impact beyond occasional delays, as its auto terminal is located at the entrance to the port across the bridge and is still accessible, it said. Volkswagen also says its port operations in Baltimore have not been affected because of the location of its facility, although there may be truck delays because of traffic detours. GM said it will divert its vehicle shipments to other ports and added that it expected minimal impact from the bridge collapse.

In contrast, coal producer Consol Energy said vessel access to its marine terminal has been delayed and that it is studying all available options to minimize or address the direct and indirect impacts to the company and its operations. Railroad company CSX stated that its coal customers should expect “potential shipment delays.” Ford Chief Financial Officer John Lawler said the Baltimore bridge collapse and subsequent port closure will force the automaker to divert parts to other ports, which will affect its supply chain, but that the group has already secured alternatives. The CEO of Mercedes-Benz USA, Dimitris Psillakis, stated in an interview with CNBC that it is too early to know how the bridge’s collapse will impact its operations.

A key piece of infrastructure

Beyond port activity, the bridge was critical to commuting in Baltimore, as it is part of its beltway. It is also key to the northeast corridor. Some 33,000 vehicles crossed it daily. “I’ve directed my team to move heaven and earth to reopen the port and rebuild the bridge as soon as humanly possible,” Biden said in his address, but just as reopening and normalizing shipping traffic may be a matter of weeks or months, building a new bridge will take years.

It took five years to build the bridge, which collapsed within seconds. When it opened in 1977, it served as an alternative to the congested Harbor Tunnel, which runs under the river. The collapse will especially affect trucks that transport dangerous goods, such as oil, natural gas and chemical products, which are barred from the tunnels, as well as large vehicles, which cannot pass through because of their size. They will have to detour some 50 kilometers through the section of the ring road running west of the city.

Overall, the bridge’s collapse will affect all commercial traffic at the port and distribution warehouses. Amazon has a huge logistics warehouse in the port area, on the north bank of the Patapsco River, for which the infrastructure was key. “Last year, when I worked at Amazon, I was crossing that bridge up to 20 times a day, day and night,” an Uber driver who used to deliver packages for the e-commerce giant said Tuesday. Now it will be necessary to take huge detours and face more congestion.

“This is going to take some time. And the people of Baltimore can count on us, though, to stick with them at every step of the way until the port is reopened and the bridge is rebuilt,” Biden concluded.

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