A piece of the Key Bridge rests on the front of the Dali, a container ship, in the Patapsco River on Tuesday. (Maryland National Guard photo / CC BY-ND 2.0)

The collapse of Baltimore’s Francis Scott Key Bridge after being struck by container ship Dali has resulted in human tragedy. But the economic implications that will continue indefinitely are coming into focus with the partial and temporary closure of, thus more limited access to, the Port of Baltimore ― one of the country’s busiest shipping terminals.

The Key Bridge served as a crucial highway artery in a key hub for shipping along the East Coast, especially given its capacity and ability to accommodate large trucks and hazardous materials. In 2023, the four-lane toll bridge 12.45 million vehicles, or roughly 34,000 vehicles a day, according to a state report. Its demise will result in greater use of nearby arteries, including Interstates 95 and 695, as well as the Harbor and Fort McHenry toll tunnels.

To begin estimating the impact of the collapse, the Washington, D.C.-based American Trucking Associations revealed that the approximately 4,900 trucks per day transport an annual average of $28 billion worth of goods annually via the Key Bridge and Port of Baltimore. 

Calling them “critical components of our nation’s infrastructure and supply chain,” ATA spokesman Sean McNally said “consequently this incident will have significant and long-lasting impacts on the region. … Trucks moving hazardous materials will now be subject to roughly 30 miles of detours around the City of Baltimore, because they are prohibited from using the city’s tunnels.” 

And that all comes at costs “in time, fuel and delays for trucks traveling through the region, on top of the disruption that a closure of the Port of Baltimore will inflict on our economy,” McNally said. “We urge state and federal government agencies to swiftly target appropriate resources to open the port and replace this bridge as quickly as possible.”

Captain Jim Staples of Boston-based maritime consultant OceanRiver LLC, said the accident has effects that extend well past our region.

“The whole supply chain has been affected now due to this tragedy. So until they get the channel opened back up, many key deliveries will be diverted from the port,” which is known for its expansive shipping of cars, construction equipment, coal and containers for an expansive variety of products.

“Even when the port reopens,” said Staples, “it will congest not only the roads and the train tracks, but the other busy ports in the mid-Atlantic region,” such as New York; Philadelphia; Richmond and Norfolk, Virginia; and Morehead City and Wilmington, North Carolina, given how much space they have available for extra cargo. Or don’t.

“Look how backed up the ports got during the pandemic,” he said, “and look at the cargo on the Dali and a few other ships that needed to depart the Port of Baltimore and suddenly can’t get out. They’ve been delayed, even if it does get shipped via the nation’s highways or the rail system.”

With road traffic patterns almost back to pre-pandemic levels, the bridge collapse will increase congestion along Interstate 95, and many other main and secondary arteries.

Then comes the impact on the workers at the ports. “In Baltimore, the longshoremen won’t have any shipments to process, for instance,” said Staples. “Getting the port back up and running will be the next phase of recovery authorities are concerned with after the search and recovery process, then getting the main channel clear.”

While there may be some thoughts that some companies may be better prepared for the unexpected after recessions, inflation, and the pandemic, “like 9-11,” said Staples, “this is a human tragedy that couldn’t have been predicted.

“So the key is getting that channel in the Patapsco River reopened,” he said. “It has to be surveyed to ensure that it’s safe, but once that’s done the seascape will markedly improve.”