How a Panama Canal change brought big ships like the Dali to Baltimore

The ship that struck Baltimore’s Francis Scott Key Bridge this week was one of a new, larger class that began plying the route from Asia to the East Coast via the Panama Canal in 2016, when locks in the canal were expanded to make room for the bigger vessels increasingly favored by shipping companies.

Officials in Maryland had seen the economic opportunity presented by the larger ships, which made the long trip up the Chesapeake Bay more worthwhile to ship owners. The port installed four new cranes capable of handling gargantuan container ships and had its harbor dredged to the 50-foot depth needed to fit them, putting it in a club of three East Coast ports then ready to welcome the world’s largest vessels.

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“We knew the payday was coming for the Port of Baltimore,” said James White, then the executive director of the Maryland Port Administration.

But the Singapore-flagged Dali’s crash into the Key Bridge on Tuesday has raised new questions about the risks big ships pose to American infrastructure.

“There is a real challenge here,” said Benjamin W. Schafer, a civil and systems engineering professor at Johns Hopkins University. He said the hulking vessel stuck in the Patapsco River appears unfathomably large butted up against the fallen bridge, even if the 985-foot Dali isn’t among the very biggest container ships.

The new Panama Canal locks, capable of handling larger ships, opened in the summer of 2016, reshaping international supply chains. Accommodating the new ships, which can carry as many as 14,000 containers, required huge investments by agencies operating ports and the federal government to ensure that cranes, berths, harbors and shipping channels were big enough.

Abe Eshkenazi, chief executive of the Association for Supply Chain Management, said the allure of larger ships was straightforward.

“It’s a volume question,” he said. “If you could put more products on a particular vessel and get it to the ports quicker, you’re beating the competition.”

The shipping industry had been turning to bigger vessels before the expansion, presenting a problem for authorities in Panama, said Joseph L. Schofer, a emeritus professor of civil and environmental engineering at Northwestern University.

The canal could accommodate container ships up to only 966 feet long and 107 feet wide, a standard known as Panamax. That limit meant the canal’s operators were missing out on cargo carried aboard new, bigger ships.

“They really wanted to make sure they were meeting the needs of their customers,” Schofer said. So they launched the expansion plan.

As work got underway in Panama, ports in the United States began installing larger cranes and having deeper harbors and channels dredged out.

“The planning on this was almost 10 years in the making,” Eshkenazi said, adding, “The readiness of the U.S. ports and the related infrastructure had to be assessed.”

Experts did not recall the risk of a large ship running into a bridge as being a top consideration as East Coast ports rushed to build infrastructure to accommodate the behemoths that were becoming increasingly common in international shipping. Instead, efforts were focused on projects that include dredging deeper shipping channels and a $1.7 billion plan to raise the height of a 90-year-old bridge as port authorities vied to capture cargo carried on what are called neo-Panamax ships.

The Maryland Port Administration did not respond to a question about any work it did to assess the risks posed by bigger cargo ships as the port invested to welcome them. White, who left the port administration in 2019, said it was unclear whether additional protections for the bridge could be justified, given the rarity of collisions with ships.

“There’s a lot of Monday-morning quarterbacks out there saying you should have bumpers or tug assist,” White said, adding, “If you require tug boats at every bridge crossing, the ship owners don’t want to go for that expense.”

Even before the canal expansion, big ships were known to run into bridges. In 2013, the Overseas Reymar, with gross tonnage of 40,000 tons, hit the Bay Bridge in the San Francisco area, according to a U.S. Coast Guard report. But there were fenders protecting the bridge, and they appear to have worked. The bridge itself wasn’t damaged, no one was hurt, and repair costs were initially estimated to be a few million dollars, the report said.

Still, the 95,000-gross-ton Dali - which passed through the Panama Canal on its way to Baltimore - was far bigger, and experts say it’s unclear what additional protective measures might have prevented the crash. Schafer, of Johns Hopkins, said there’s “little evidence that it’s economically feasible to create a protection system for a cargo ship that is coming at a full, straight-on blow.” But he emphasized that a more robust system - whether by upgrading maritime safety practices or developing structures that might divert errant ships before they get too close - is crucial for preventing a replay of the deadly and disruptive incident.

As part of its investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board has asked Maryland to provide information on any structures meant to protect four state bridges from ship strikes, an indication of a broader agency interest that has echoed among bridge engineers, transportation safety officials and others.

Kevin Longley, a spokesman for the American Society of Civil Engineers, said some of the group’s most active members began discussing new ways to protect bridges immediately after the 9,090-foot-long Key Bridge collapsed into the Patapsco River. The organization intends to release an action plan to avoid a similar disaster in the future.

The year the new Panama locks opened, a report by the International Monetary Fund identified almost $18 billion of investments at East Coast and Gulf ports, far more than the $5 billion cost of the canal expansion itself.

Among the most dramatic projects was a $1.7 billion push to raise New Jersey’s Bayonne Bridge by 64 feet. Engineers designed a road deck higher up in the bridge’s arch, giving ships more space to pass through beneath. The project was completed in 2019. In Charleston, S.C., a decade-long, $580 million project was completed in 2022 that gave the port a 52-foot-deep harbor - the deepest on the East Coast.

The Baltimore port faces an uncertain few months. But the investments to make way for larger ships appear to have paid off in recent years. Last year, the port handled 52.3 million tons of foreign cargo, beating the previous record, 44.2 million tons, set in 2019. In August, the 1,200-foot Ever Max became the largest ship to ever visit the port - an ongoing sign, officials said, of its ability to handle giant vessels.

Concerns about the dangers of big ships have in recent years prompted at least one agency that operates bridges on the East Coast to pursue new safeguards. Officials at the Delaware River and Bay Authority are in the middle of a project to protect a pair of bridges that carry a stretch of interstate highway between Delaware and New Jersey. The $93 million job was backed with $22 million in federal transportation grant funding.

James Salmon, a spokesman for the authority, said he was left speechless when he saw the news out of Baltimore. He expects the system being installed in the Delaware River would have protected the bridges there in a similar situation. The project involves installing eight 80-foot-wide stone-filled barriers known as dolphins near the bridge. The project is on schedule to be completed next year.

“Today’s ships are faster, bigger and can be more impactful than ships were of yesteryear,” Salmon said. “Our current fendering system has served its useful life, and it needed to be upgraded and enhanced.”

In 1980, a smaller container ship lost power and hit one of the piers of the Key Bridge, then three years old, according to a National Research Council report. It destroyed a protective concrete structure, but the bridge otherwise withstood the incursion.

After Tuesday’s collision, Schofer, of Northwestern, suggested there could be low-cost ways to quickly offer protection, such as anchoring old ships near bridges to serve as a temporary barrier.

“I would want to take a strategic look at where the risks are,” he said.

Even as the cleanup of this week’s wreckage is just getting underway, some bridge experts have suggested that the replacement for the Key Bridge will need to accommodate even bigger ships.

“We don’t want a design exactly for what we’re seeing right now,” said Rachel Sangree, a bridge engineering expert at Johns Hopkins, “but always be thinking ahead.”

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Jeremy Merrill and Steven Rich contributed to this report.

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