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News / Nation & World

With widened channel, port seeks to recover traffic lost after Key Bridge collapse

By Jean Marbella, , The Baltimore Sun (TNS),
Published: June 10, 2024, 1:45pm

BALTIMORE — Jonathan Daniels remembers how he felt seeing the cruise ships return to Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, after more than a year’s absence due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But the restoration of Baltimore’s main shipping channel to its full 700-foot width may be an even more moving experience, said Daniels, who left the Florida port to become the executive director of the Port of Baltimore earlier this year. The Coast Guard tentatively plans to reopen the channel Monday after additional dredging, the final step of clearing 50,000 tons of debris from the Francis Scott Key Bridge.

“This will be a little bit more emotional just because we’re coming off such a catastrophe,” Daniels said ahead of the milestone. “Certainly to see vessels coming through the impact zone and get to the dock lends itself to a very emotional time, and a time to celebrate what was accomplished.”

Even, he added, as the port community remembers that six lives were lost — the construction workers who were filling potholes on the bridge when it tumbled into the Patapsco River — and realizes that returning to previous vessel traffic levels will take more than the restoration of what’s known as the federal channel.

Still, ship traffic has been steadily growing, he said, as smaller vessels used temporary channels that were dredged. And after the container ship that struck the bridge and caused its collapse was moved May 20, the federal channel itself opened, albeit at a narrower, 400-foot width.

Six vessels were due Saturday to the port, able to use it even at 400 feet wide, and more were expected to follow in the coming days, Daniels said.

Companies that held off sending ships to Baltimore until the widened federal channel was ready have begun scheduling them, those in the logistics field said. But given the distance many will travel, they added, don’t expect an immediate influx of the big cargo carriers.

“The steamship lines have now started to accept bookings for the larger container ships coming from Asia, Latin America and Europe,” said Matt Castle, vice president of global forwarding for C.H. Robinson, one of the largest logistics companies in the world. “It may take until mid-July for the full range of regular weekly sailings to resume.”

Still, Castle was among those cheering in anticipation of the channel’s full reopening.

“After everything that’s happened,” he said, “it’ll be a wonderful milestone for the port.”

The Army Corps of Engineers said Sunday on social media that teams are still working to identify any “high spots” to ensure there are no hazards to navigation.

“We are going to be as thorough and disciplined as we have been since the beginning. We owe it to Baltimore and the Port to turn over a sage navigation channel they can use with the greatest of confidence,” Col. Estee Punchasin, Baltimore district commander, said on X, formerly known as Twitter.

The Key Bridge Response Unified Command did not respond to questions Sunday about whether the full channel was still on target to open Monday.

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Castle said the company diverted its customers’ freight mainly to New York, New Jersey and Norfolk, Virginia, occasionally seeing congestion, particularly at the southern port recently. “So we hope reopening the Port of Baltimore will alleviate that,” he said.

Castle said some drayage carriers, which truck shipping containers to their next destination, have shifted their operations to Norfolk but are “eager” to get back to Baltimore.

With Baltimore an overnight truck trip to a third of the U.S. population, its port has always been an attractive option for freight destined for many parts of the country.

“Truck drivers can go back home for dinner,” said Tinglong Dai, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School and expert in supply chains.

That is why he said he feels “very optimistic” that port traffic levels will recover quickly, particularly in the categories in which Baltimore ranks first in the country for handling, such as cars, light trucks and farm equipment.

“Location, location, location,” Dai said. “Baltimore is central.”

While some vehicle shipments have diverted to ports such as Brunswick, Georgia, Dai anticipates they’ll return with the channel’s restoration.

“The problem with Brunswick is it’s almost Florida,” he said. “If you’re sending something to Ohio or Michigan, it’s really far.”

Dai said the supply chain is “more agile and more resilient” than in the past, having learned lessons during the pandemic when grocery shelves would empty and there were long waits for some goods. For one thing, there is much more warehouse space, he said, allowing a greater volume of products to be stored and readily available.

Still, challenges remain, both locally and globally.

Paul Brashier, vice president of drayage and intermodal for ITS Logistics, said that as port traffic increases, there could be a strain on the roads as trucks pick up and drop off cargo. The Key Bridge was part of the Baltimore Beltway, and is not expected to be rebuilt for several years.

“If there’s no strategic planning on what roads can be used, that could challenge the throughput of containers,” he said.

He is also keeping watch on what he calls “some gray clouds” on the horizon that could affect shipping everywhere, such as the continuing attacks in the Red Sea that have forced vessels to go around Africa to some “chaos” in China over vessel capacity and container shortages.

“It’s whack-a-mole,” Brashier said of the continual churn in shipping. “You knock something down and something else pops up somewhere else.”

In Maryland, some say, the amount of attention the Key Bridge collapse received, and the amount of sympathy, bodes well for the port’s continuing recovery.

Daniels said the port’s business development team has a ready answer when stakeholders ask how they can help: “You can return and bring your cargo back.”

Already, he said, ship traffic is up, from vessels bringing sugar to Domino’s to cruise ships that now have their terminal back after serving temporarily as a command center for the response to the bridge collapse.

“Cargo is going to lag behind a bit,” Daniels said. Conservatively speaking, he said, it could take until late this year or early next year for it to fully return.

Dai said the port’s recovery will be aided by the state being fully invested in it. Before the disaster struck, the port was coming off a record year and benefited from “a lot of investment,” Dai said. That included Democratic President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill, which he touted during a 2021 visit to the port.

“Maryland wants to make this a success story,” Dai said of the drive to bring ships back to the port. “Whoever comes here will be welcomed like heroes.”