Port of Baltimore suspends vessel traffic after Key Bridge collapses, stands to lose $15 million per day

BALTIMORE — Vessel traffic was suspended in and out of the Port of Baltimore, one of the nation’s busiest ports, after a container ship struck the Francis Scott Key Bridge and it collapsed early Tuesday morning, sending several cars into the Patapsco River.

State transportation officials gave no estimate on when the port might reopen to vessels or the immediate impact on shipping. Officials, who spoke amid a continuing and massive search and rescue mission, said the port was not shut down and remained open to process trucks inside terminals.

“Vessel traffic into and out of the port of Baltimore is suspended until further notice, but the port is still open for truck transactions,” said Paul Wiedefeld, Maryland’s secretary of transportation, during a news conference.

The vessel suspension likely will have wide-reaching and potentially harmful ripple effects, disrupting shipping and supply chains not only locally but nationally and internationally. The port is one of only three on the East Coast that can accommodate some of the largest ships in the world.

Baltimore’s port takes in roughly 2.5% of inbound containers that enter the U.S., said John D. McCown, a senior fellow at the Center for Maritime Strategy in Arlington, Virginia. Some of the cargo bound for Baltimore likely will end up at inland points at a port of call closest to the ultimate destination, depending on where the cargo is coming from, he said.

“I’m sure the carriers and their customers are trying to figure out, for ships that are still moving, where they offload that,” McCown said. “That’s going to cause some difficulty in some cases.”

Ports along the East Coast — which has more container capacity than the West Coast — would be likely candidates. Those include cities such as Norfolk, Virginia; Charleston, South Carolina; and Philadelphia, he said. Baltimore has a high market share of shipments of autos and roll-on, roll-off machinery.

“With shippers and carriers, the biggest issue is the uncertainty in terms of timing,” he said. “What shippers really want for the most part is definition. In the next few days you’ll have people making decisions. They’re not going to want to sit around and kind of wait because the cargo’s got to keep moving.”

Baltimore’s port, which generates more than 15,300 direct jobs, had rebounded from global supply chain difficulties and disruptions during the coronavirus pandemic and hit records last year for handling cargo. It is the nation’s 16th busiest port, ranking first for volume of autos and light trucks, roll-on/roll-off heavy farm and construction machinery, imported sugar and imported gypsum. The port’s main container terminal, Seagirt, is operated by Ports America and located off Broening Highway.

With a suspension lasting an unknown period, “that’s a big issue for Baltimore … that’s 100% of their business, and there’s no alternative to that,” McCown said. “Unfortunately, until it’s back and operating, it’s not going to get any of that business back.”

With the shipping channel closed, the port stands to lose an estimated $15 million per day in economic activity, said Daraius Irani, chief economist at the Regional Economic Studies Institute at Towson University. Irani based the current estimates, which include a $1.5 million loss per day in state and local taxes, on an earlier state Department of Transportation report.

Scott Cowan, president of the International Longshoremen’s Association Local 333 in the Port of Baltimore, said the halting of ships in and out of the port will be “catastrophic” for the thousands employed there.

“Until the shipping channel gets opened, there’s not gonna be any ship traffic, there’s not gonna be any ships, there’s not gonna be any work for the people,” Cowan said.

Last year, both state-owned public marine terminals and private terminals handled a record 52.3 million tons of foreign cargo worth $80 billion.

Its location makes it the closest Atlantic port to major Midwestern manufacturing centers and an overnight drive to one-third of all U.S. households, according to the port’s website.

Louis Campion, president and CEO of the Maryland Motor Truck Association, said he’s concerned about impact on the port and access to places such as Fairfield.

Campion raised concerns about traffic congestion, particularly because deliveries such as hazardous material loads cannot travel through Interstate 895 or I-95 tunnels. He also questioned how long fuel will be available at terminals to process deliveries over the next few days.

But he said it’s still “premature” to discuss the effects of the bridge’s collapse. He said he is in touch with “various administrative agencies to see how and when we can talk about alternative routing” for deliveries.

“We’re really still trying to assess it,” Campion said.

Cowan said none of the 2,400 workers he represents at the port were injured or missing, to the best of his knowledge. He said he was alerted to the bridge collapse by calls from his members around 2 a.m.

But the days ahead look dark.

Workers get hired on a daily basis, Cowan said, and work will dry up the moment the cargo already in the terminal is processed.

Cowan said he’s in touch with the state and the port director and trying to get a timeline on when the shipping channel will reopen.

Challenges are likely ahead for businesses at Tradepoint Atlantic, the sprawling logistics and distribution hub on the former site of Bethlehem Steel in Sparrows Point where tenants rely on the port and highway network. The project’s developers are planning a new $1 billion container terminal and had said they expect to break ground by the end of next year. Tradepoint is home to 50 tenants, among them Amazon, Under Armour, FedEx, BMW, Volkswagen and McCormick & Co.

“For nearly 50 years, the bridge has served as a vital artery of transportation and logistics, not only for the Baltimore region, but for the entire East Coast of America,” Tradepoint officials said in an emailed statement. “As part of the Port of Baltimore, we are committed to helping our state and local partners and the entire port community recover and rebuild from this tragedy.”

Amazon was evaluating the immediate and future impact of the bridge collapse on employees, delivery partners and the community around its warehouses and “will make any adjustments to our operations that are needed,” said Richard Rocha, a spokesperson.

The Dali, a 948-foot, Singapore-flagged cargo ship, collided with a bridge support, causing much of the 46-year-old bridge to collapse. The vessel had been traveling about 8 knots (about 9 mph) and was being guided through the port by a local pilot as required by state law.

The Dali, operated by charter vessel company Synergy Group, was carrying Maersk customers’ cargo. No Maersk crew or personnel were on board.

Maersk, a Danish shipping and logistics company, omitted Baltimore on all its services for the foreseeable future, until passage is deemed safe, “due to the damage to the bridge and resulting debris.”

The shipper said it planned to discharge cargo already on the water in nearby ports, then use land transportation to reach final destinations. Maersk warned that cargo set to discharge in Baltimore could face delays while being rerouted.

Vehicle traffic has been rerouted from the 1.6-mile-long steel bridge, which is part of Interstate 695, a major thoroughfare and one of Baltimore’s three toll crossings. The bridge carried more than 12.4 million commercial and passenger vehicles in 2023 — roughly 34,000 a day — according to a November report.

Two construction workers who were repairing potholes on the bridge at the time — one of whom was hospitalized — were rescued, Wiedefeld said. Six other workers were presumed dead Tuesday evening, said Jeffrey Pritzker, executive vice president of Brawner Builders.

The Maryland Chamber of Commerce urged businesses and residents to be patient and adjust daily routines and operations, likely for the long term, to prepare for a “monumental task ahead to recover from this tragedy and restore this vital transportation link.”

“While the focus remains on the human impacts, the Francis Scott Key Bridge is a critical transportation artery for our state,” the group said. “Its extended closure will inevitably disrupt commercial activities and supply chains.”

Besides handling commercial cargo, the port offers year-round cruising to destinations such as the Bahamas, Bermuda and New England through companies such as Carnival Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean International.

Carnival will be temporarily moving its cruise operations for the Carnival Legend to Norfolk, Virginia.

“Our thoughts remain with the impacted families and first responders in Baltimore,” said Christine Duffy, president of Carnival Cruise Line. “We appreciate the pledge made by President Biden today to dedicate all available resources to reopen Baltimore Harbor to marine traffic as soon as possible. As those plans are finalized, we will update our future cruise guests on when we will return home to Baltimore, but in the meantime, we appreciate the quick response and support from officials in Norfolk.”

The port logistics team for Royal Caribbean is working on alternatives for the Vision of the Seas’ ongoing and upcoming sailings, a spokesperson said in an email. Customers will be notified once plans are finalized, the email said.

Macinzie McFarland, senior manager of strategic communications and public affairs for the Cruise Lines International Association, said the group is following the situation.

McFarland said that based on published 2024 itineraries, cruise activity at the Port of Baltimore — the 29th largest cruise port in the U.S. — includes 12 ships making 115 ship calls for the 2024 calendar year. McFarland said any adjustment to cruise activity at the Port of Baltimore, which has 378,000 scheduled passenger movements, will be announced by individual cruise lines.

“Right now, the most important thing to do is to allow the emergency workers to do their work,” McFarland said.