Port of Baltimore Shipping Channel Opening Delayed

The wreckage stemming from the Francis Scott Key Bridge collapse will take a week longer to clean up than initially anticipated.

The Unified Command team responsible for cleaning up the debris and restoring the shipping channel to the Port of Baltimore said the pathway will be fully open to its original 700-foot width and 50-foot depth by June 8-10. This is a slight pushback from the original timeline to get everything cleared by the end of May.

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Unified Command cleared a 400-foot-wide swath of the Fort McHenry Federal Channel May 20, permitting all pre-collapse, deep-draft commercial vessels transit to the Port of Baltimore. The port already has return commitments from Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC), Maersk and Hapag-Lloyd, all of whom announced they were bringing services back to the port.

The port effectively closed when the Dali container vessel crashed into the Key Bridge on March 26, resulting in the structure’s collapse and the death of six construction workers. Due to the crash and ensuing wreckage sprawled out, container ships and other vessels were unable to pass through until Unified Command opened four separate alternate channels for boats to traverse in the weeks after.

But even though the damaged Dali has been refloated and removed to the port, the 400-foot channel is still narrower than before the bridge collapse, because one remaining section of the main span remains embedded in the mud.

To restore the federal channel to its original width and depth, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) must dig out the bottom cord of the remaining truss and cut it into three sections to safely lift the debris out of the Patapsco River.

“We are not taking our foot off the gas,” said Col. Estee Pinchasin, USACE, Baltimore District commander, in a statement Friday. “We are pushing forward as quickly and safely as possible to reach 700 feet and ensuring we remove all wreckage to prevent any impact to future navigation.”

Only about one-third of this truss is visible above the water as it stretches down to the riverbed and sits buried in the mud line.

The adjusted timing accounts for the complexity of the cutting and rigging required to lift portions of the large span, according to USACE. It also accounts for safety measures and possible inclement weather potentially impacting ongoing salvage operations.

“This effort is more complex than initially estimated,” Pinchasin said. “Salvage crews must dig out the bottom cord of this truss to access the areas needing to be cut.”

Thus far, 500 commercial vessels have passed through temporary channels opened by Unified Command in the eight weeks since the March 26 collapse, according to Coast Guard Rear Admiral Shannon Gilreath.

The Coast Guard said Tuesday that 24-hour commercial vessel traffic through the Fort McHenry Limited Access Channel had commenced. Deep-draft vessels, which must be accompanied by a Maryland pilot and two escort tugboats, have priority in the 50-foot-deep channel, though shallower commercial ships can use the three other existing alternate channels.

The return of ships to the port would be a major win for local commerce in the Baltimore area, as well as the port’s workers alike. But the port fulfills roles on a national scale as well, serving as the country’s 15th-largest container gateway by 20-foot equivalent units (TEUs) processed, according to data from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Additionally, the return of vessels would mean shippers would no longer have to seek out alternate land transportation methods to bring goods back into the Baltimore area.

The delays to the full opening have not stopped other maritime movements into and out of the Port of Baltimore, with two cruises leaving the gateway this weekend for the first time since the March accident.

Meanwhile, the refloated Dali vessel is expected to remain at the port for the next four to six weeks, before traveling to the Port of Virginia for more extensive repairs, and to unload the cargo.

Currently, the safety zone established for all navigable waters of the Chesapeake Bay within a 2,000-yard radius of the Francis Scott Key Bridge remains in effect and is intended to protect personnel, vessels and the marine environment.

Maryland transportation officials have said they expect to replace the Francis Scott Key Bridge with a new span by fall 2028. The project to replace the bridge is estimated to cost between $1.7 billion and $1.9 billion.