How long will it take to rebuild the Key Bridge following its collapse?

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The Francis Scott Key Bridge could rejoin Baltimore’s skyline in as little as two years or as many as 15, with some experts eyeing a number in between.

The Key Bridge crossed the Patapsco River in Baltimore’s outer harbor until early Tuesday morning, when a cargo vessel struck the bridge and sent it into the frigid waters below. As of Wednesday, authorities are still searching for four missing construction workers who are presumed dead; two bodies were recovered Wednesday.

While authorities emphasized the need to focus on the recovery operation, questions have swirled about the rebuild of the Key Bridge — especially after President Joe Biden, a Democrat, said Tuesday that the federal government would “pay the entire cost of reconstructing” the bridge.

Secretary of the Maryland Department of Transportation Paul J. Wiedefeld said at a news conference Wednesday evening that the state has applied for available federal dollars.

“We intend to receive some additional federal dollars very quickly to start that process and then we will come up with a design for the replacement of that bridge as quickly as possible to get the port back up and the community back up and running,” Wiedefeld said.

But even with promised federal money, there are many factors that need to be considered before construction of any bridge can begin, said Benjamin W. Schafer, a structural engineer who specializes in steel structures and is an engineering professor at the Johns Hopkins University, naming securing funding, deciding on a visual design, selecting materials and working out engineering queries as steps in the process.

In the case of the Key Bridge collapse, clearing the river of debris will also be an obstacle. All said and done, Schafer estimated a rebuild could take as long as a decade or more.

“The bridge originally, it seems like it was about five years from breaking ground to opening up. In 1980, when the Tampa [Bay] Sunshine Skyway bridge had a strike and was destroyed, and then rebuilt with a new cable-stayed bridge, that was seven years. I would consider those lower bounds,” he said. “I think we’re looking at seven-plus, I would guess 10 to 15 years before — I know that sounds crazy — but before we look back over and we see a bridge jumping over the harbor.”

At an online event hosted by Hopkins Wednesday morning, Schafer said he’s “lived through quite a few civil infrastructure projects, and they’re rarely less than 10 years,” adding that the price tags “never seem to be out of the hundreds of millions these days.”

“Although I don’t think the transportation network will come back quickly, we can get the port back up,” Schafer said.

Schafer added that the “politics of getting to the moment of building the bridge can run on much longer than the actual building of it,” a claim already hinted at by state and federal officials.

“A special thanks to President Biden who made it very very clear that he will do everything in his power to make sure that we get the help we need to deal with this challenge,” said Sen. Ben Cardin, a Democrat, at a Tuesday news conference. “But as Secretary [Pete] Buttigieg told us in our briefings, he’s going to need the help of Congress to get things done.”

Buttigieg, the federal secretary of transportation, said on Tuesday his department stands ready to “approve emergency funding as soon as we receive that request.”

“This is no ordinary bridge. This is one of the cathedrals of American infrastructure,” Buttigieg said. “It has been part of the skyline of this region for longer than many of us have been alive. So the path to normalcy will not be easy, it will not be quick, it will not be inexpensive, but we will rebuild together.”

In a White House briefing Wednesday, Buttigieg did not answer questions about rough cost estimates or timelines for rebuilding the bridge but reiterated the administration’s vow to support it.

He said he believed the Maryland Department of Transportation already submitted an emergency relief request, which would provide immediate access to an account that has roughly $950 million available. Still, that account has a long list of needs and projects already lined up for it, so congressional approval for more funds may be needed, he said. Congress may also need to approve the full federal financing that Biden referenced.

Congress moving quickly on a rebuild isn’t out of the question, though Biden often finds himself at odds with the thin Republican majority in the U.S. House. In 2007, the I-35W bridge collapsed in Minneapolis, killing 13 and injuring nearly 150 people. Just a few days later, Congress approved a quarter of a billion dollars to go towards rebuilding the bridge.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat, said in an interview that access to the emergency relief would require Maryland to put 10% toward the rebuild and federal lawmakers could act to avoid that. Other funding could come from the shipping company if they’re eventually found liable, he said.

“I will do everything possible to secure the necessary federal resources to clear the channel and reopen the port and rebuild the bridge,” Van Hollen said.

From Annapolis, Senate President Bill Ferguson, a Democrat representing Baltimore City, said he was “very pleased” Biden committed federal dollars to the reconstruction efforts.

“Moving heaven and earth to rebuild, I think, is essential,” Ferguson said. “Even if we have federal support for a rebuild, all of these other costs and collateral impacts of this incident are probably not going to go for days, weeks, months, years.”

Ferguson said there will be an investigation into how the collision occurred, followed by salvaging efforts. Rebuilding can’t start until after that.

“I think when we rebuild, we should rebuild for the 22nd century,” Ferguson said. “This was a 50-year-old bridge. We should assume that when we rebuild, it’s rebuilding for the next 50 to 75 years.”

Natalie M. Scala, an associate professor at Towson University who directs the graduate program in supply chain management, said any “prudent bridge discussion” should include thinking about how the world will change over the next century, especially concerning how sea level rise could affect the port.

“If we are smart about this, we are going to ask, ‘How does this bridge withstand climate change?'” Scala said. “When [the Key Bridge] was built, ships were not this large. What kind of engineering can be done to support the kind of shipping we do now? If we take blueprints from previous bridges and open them up, we’re not really solving the question of how we got here in the first place.”

Abieyuwa Aghayere, an engineering professor at Drexel University who teaches a course dedicated to finding out why certain structures fail, said safety, cost and sustainability are major factors considered in the construction of bridges, adding that rebuilds must aim to “remove the vulnerability that may have been there.”

“You don’t want to repeat the same mistakes,” he said.

But even with safety top of mind, Aghayere thinks the rebuild could be accomplished quickly, especially if promised federal funds come through.

“Because of the importance of 695 … I can see it being done within one to two years,” Aghayere said, adding that it can be difficult to estimate. “If all hands are on deck, I think it can be done.”

Cable-stayed bridges are now popular and a style that might work in the area where the Key Bridge collapsed, Aghayere said, adding that having bridge supports spaced farther away from each other would allow for a wider opening for ships to navigate.

A newly built Key Bridge might also likely include sensors to monitor its structural health, like those implemented on Delaware’s Indian River Inlet bridge completed in 2012, said Nii Attoh-Okine, the civil and environmental engineering chair at the University of Maryland.

Attoh-Okine said more information, like the number of vehicles the bridge will have to accommodate and what materials and designs will be used, is necessary to estimate exactly how long a rebuild will take, but suggested it will be years.

“This is a very, very important bridge, not only for Baltimore, not only for Maryland, but for the eastern corridor,” he said. “It’s part of the supply chain.”

Rachel Sangree, an associate teaching professor at Hopkins in the engineering department and a former bridge inspector, noted that a future bridge will likely need to provide a route for handling hazardous materials, which can’t travel through tunnels, as the former bridge did.

“The Key Bridge was very, very tall, so whatever is selected, it will have to accommodate not only these existing sizes of the shipping vessels, but also larger sizes, because we don’t want to design exactly for what we’re seeing right now,” Sangree said. “We always need to be thinking ahead.”

Schafer speculated there will be urgency to clear the site and start rebuilding, and said there will undoubtedly be discussions about bridge protection structures. The Key Bridge was one of the city’s skyline landmarks, which also comes with its own set of design priorities, he said.

“It means something to Baltimoreans, and to the region,” Schafer said. “And so I don’t think a simple, utilitarian bridge would necessarily be built back. I think they’ll think about what they’re creating, and its aesthetics.”

Baltimore Sun reporters Hannah Gaskill, Sam Janesch, Jonathan M. Pitts and Dillon Mullan contributed to this story.