Baltimore Port Closure Will Affect Logistics Nationwide

The nation assessed the supply chain consequences of the closure of the Port of Baltimore, which was shut down after a container vessel, the mv. Dali, apparently lost propulsion and struck the Francis Scott Key Bridge on March 26, collapsing it.

At press time, the Coast Guard had ended a search for four construction workers who had been filling potholes on the bridge and who went missing when it collapsed into the Patapsco River. Bodies of two construction workers were recovered in a pickup truck underwater on March 27.

The National Transportation Safety Board has already released a timeline of events based on the vessel’s “black box” recording.

Maryland Gov. Wes Moore declared a state of emergency. President Joe Biden has already said the federal government will pay for the cost of replacing the bridge, estimated at $350 million. Biden posted on X, formerly Twitter, “The Francis Scott Key Bridge is vital to our economy, and it’s vital to our quality of life. That’s why I’ve directed my team to work with Maryland and move heaven and earth to reopen the port and rebuild the bridge as soon as humanly possible.”

Marine insurers estimate that claims from the incident could reach $1.3 billion.

The American Waterways Operators said in a statement, “AWO is deeply saddened by the catastrophic collapse of the Key Bridge in Baltimore. Our thoughts are with those who were on the bridge at the time of the collapse, and with the first responders working to rescue survivors. Consistent with standard port procedure for containerships navigating that segment of the Patapsco River, the foreign-flagged containership involved was navigating on its own at the time of the incident. As longtime partners to the Port of Baltimore in moving the nation’s maritime commerce, the American tugboat, towboat and barge industry stands ready to assist with recovery efforts in any way we can.”

Shift To Gulf Ports?

The tragedy at the Port of Baltimore has sent “shockwaves” through the shipping industry, according to Alex Cherin, former Port of Long Beach managing director for trade and now a partner with logistics consultant EKA. Cherin said that while immediate cargo diversion from the U.S. East Coast may not be imminent, increased volumes are expected to flow toward the West Coast and Gulf Ports over the next six months to one year. “This shift underscores the pressing importance of gateway stability in today’s rapidly evolving shipping landscape,” he said.

“The closure of the Port of Baltimore for any substantial duration will undoubtedly compel importers to explore alternative ports of entry, particularly those equipped with infrastructure and assets not readily available along the East Coast. The deep water, rail connectivity, and warehousing capabilities of West Coast and Gulf ports, traditionally overlooked by shippers accustomed to Baltimore, are poised to emerge as attractive alternatives as capacity constraints plague other East Coast ports or hinder handling specialized cargo such as automobiles,” Cherin said.

The Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative—an association of mayors of 105 towns and cities in the Mississippi River corridor—held a press briefing March 28. Colin Wellenkamp, MRCTI’s executive director, said, “Mississippi River mayors want to do what they can to support the nation and keep the supply chain whole.”

Abe Eshkanazi, CEO of the Association for Supply Chain Management, assessed the closure’s effect on supply chains. Norma Jean Mattei, a former bridge inspector and past president of the American Society of Civil Engineers, answered questions about Mississippi River bridges and their risk assessments.

Baltimore Trade Statistics

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in 2020, the Port of Baltimore exported 142,152 metric tons of soybeans, all via container, with no bulk soybean exports.   The port imported 172,228 metric tons of soybeans via container and 34,185 metric tons of soybeans via bulk vessels.  By contrast, the Mississippi Gulf region—the leading export region for soybeans—accounted for 35.4 million metric tons of soybean exports by bulk, with no container soybean exports.

However, the Port of Baltimore is the leading port for the import and export of automobiles and light trucks—including farm equipment.

Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition, said, “While the Port of Baltimore is not a significant port region for soybeans and grain, it obviously is a significant resource for the broader economy.  [The disaster] also underscores the reality that while our oceans are vast and expansive, the ports that serve as the origins and destinations for global commerce can be vulnerable–whether due to weather, accident, or attack.  Investing in, maintaining, and securing these essential links in our national and global economy must remain a national priority.”