Engineers at Baltimore’s fallen port are working so diligently, they expect to restore service months earlier than expected



When the Francis Scott Key bridge collapsed into Baltimore Harbor on March 26 after being hit by a container ship, supply-chain operators feared the worst, including long delays costing billions as insurers sort out an “economic catastrophe” that Lloyds CEO John Neal said could be “one of the largest marine losses in history.”

But three weeks later, work crews are setting ambitious timelines for reopening the port and mitigating some of the long-term economic damage of the disaster.

“The impact of the bridge’s collapse will not be as severe as first expected,” Chris Rogers, head of supply chain research at S&P Global Market Intelligence, told Fortune in an email. 

The Army Corps of Engineers (ACE) is planning on dredging a new access channel by the end of the month. At 35 feet deep, it will be big enough to fit some ships delivering containers and other vessels delivering cars and tractors. That’s especially important because Baltimore is America’s largest port for cars and farm machinery, and the ninth-largest in the country by the value of imports it handles.

By the end of May, the ACE expects to reopen the original, 50-foot-deep channel that’s currently blocked by the wreckage of the Francis Scott Key bridge, which would allow marine traffic to continue as usual just two months after the container ship Dali collided with the bridge on March 26, sending it falling into the Patapsco River. Four men who were refilling potholes on the bridge at the time of the collapse fell into the water, and are presumed dead.

“A fully opened federal channel remains our primary goal…These are ambitious timelines that may still be impacted by significant adverse weather conditions or changes in the complexity of the wreckage,” Lt. Gen. Scott A. Spellmon, Army Corps of Engineers commanding general, wrote in a press release. “We are working quickly and safely to clear the channel and restore full service at this port that is so vital to the nation.”

Immediately after the collapse, marine operators feared that closures could extend far longer. “We believe it’s going to be six months. That’s what we’re telling our shippers,” Rich Kane, owner of freight brokerage business Kane Group, told the Washington Post at the time. 

The bridge collapse hasn’t caused a surge in marine shipping rates, as some watchers feared. A recent survey by Xeneta, an ocean freight rate benchmarking and intelligence platform, found that spot rates from east Asia to the east coast of the U.S. have actually fallen by 1% since the bridge collapse. Most shipping traffic destined for Baltimore has been rerouted to other East Coast ports, such as those in New York and New Jersey.

In one way, the timing of the disaster was fortunate: it coincided with Easter, a holiday period when shipping traffic generally dips anyways. Data from logistics management platform GoComet shows the number of vessels arriving at the Port of New York/New Jersey was down over 25% from the day of the collapse to April 1, and Savannah, Georgia was down more than 22%.

“The shipping lines and cargo owners have rapidly altered their routes to avoid the port, while the US Army CoE’s estimated reopening time is sooner than first anticipated,” Rogers wrote. “It’s clear that, yet again, logistics networks can be resilient to unexpected changes in conditions – as shown with the Red Sea challenges and Panama Canal restrictions.”

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