Baltimores freak bridge collapse reverberates from cars to coal

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Baltimores freak bridge collapse

The 1.6 mile-long bridge collapsed in a matter of seconds. The catastrophic consequences are set to stretch out for weeks.

As much as 2.5 million tons of coal, hundreds of cars made by Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Co., and lumber and gypsum are threatened with disruption after the container ship Dali slammed into and brought down Baltimore’s Francis Scott Key Bridge in the early hours of Tuesday. Baltimores freak bridge collapse.

Baltimores freak bridge collapse

Six people were presumed dead after a search in the Patapsco River, officials said Tuesday evening. The toll could have been worse except for a mayday call from the Singaporean-flagged vessel as it lost power.

U.S. National Transportation Safety Board Chair Jennifer Homendy said investigators were able to board the Dali Tuesday night to inspect the ship’s bridge, electronics and documentation. Baltimores freak bridge collapse.

“We do have the data record, which is essentially the ‘black box,’” Homendy said in an interview with CNN. “We’ve sent that back to our lab to evaluate and begin to develop a timeline of events that led up to the strike on the bridge.”

She added that investigators should have information from the vessel’s black box later on Wednesday.

The aftermath of the bridge’s collapse throws another spotlight on the fragile nature of global supply chains that have already been strained by drought in Panama and missile attacks on Red Sea shipping by Yemen-based Houthi militants. Docks in New Jersey and Virginia face the threat of being overwhelmed by traffic that’s being forced away from Baltimore, one of the busiest ports on the U.S. East Coast. Baltimores freak bridge collapse.

“It’s a large port with a lot of flow through it, so it’s going to have an impact,” John Lawler, Ford’s chief financial officer, told Bloomberg TV. “We’ll work on the workarounds. We’ll have to divert parts to other ports along the East Coast or elsewhere in the country.”

Baltimore only handled about three per cent of all East Coast and Gulf Coast imports in the year through Jan. 31, said S&P Global Market Intelligence. But it’s crucial to cars and light trucks, with European carmakers such as Mercedes-Benz Group AG, Volkswagen AG and BMW operating facilities in and around the port. It’s also the second-largest terminal for U.S. exports of coal, with a shutdown potentially hitting shipments to India.

About a dozen large vessels are stuck inside Baltimore’s harbour as well as a similar number of tug boats, according to IHS Markit and Wood Mackenzie’s Genscape. The list includes cargo ships, automobile carriers and a tanker named the Palanca Rio. Baltimores freak bridge collapse.

That’s just the impact on the port.

About 35,000 people used the bridge every day. The annual value of goods going over is about US$28 billion, according to the American Trucking Associations. Baltimores freak bridge collapse.

“We rely on our infrastructure systems for our daily needs, for a huge amount of the goods that we get in the United States from overseas and to have it cut off so suddenly, it’s a huge crisis,” said Yonah Freemark, a researcher at the Urban Institute. Baltimores freak bridge collapse.

The Francis Scott Key Bridge, named for the man who wrote the text of the Star-Spangled Banner, took five years to build and was completed in 1977. The cost at the time was around $141 million, according to one estimate. A rebuild today is likely to cost “several billion dollars,” said Freemark.

President Joe Biden said he wants the federal government to pay and vowed “to move heaven and earth to reopen the port and rebuild the bridge.” Baltimores freak bridge collapse.

But Baltimore is in for a lengthy reconstruction. It could be weeks before any port operations resume as officials need to remove bridge debris and the 984-foot Dali from the river. Baltimores freak bridge collapse.

That’s expected to accelerate a shift of cargo to the U.S. West Coast to avoid bottlenecks from Boston to Miami. A sudden 10 to 20 per cent increase in volumes through a port is enough to cause massive backlogs and congestion, according to Ryan Petersen, the founder and chief executive officer of Flexport Inc., a digital freight platform based in San Francisco. Baltimores freak bridge collapse.

Trade hub

Traversing Maryland, meanwhile, threatens to create headaches for motorists and truckers. A trip from Edgemere heading south to Glen Burnie was about 15 miles (24 kilometers) over the bridge. It’s 20 miles via the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel. The trip will be even tougher for truckers hauling hazardous materials, which are barred from the tunnel. They’d have to travel 45 miles on the Baltimore Beltway.

The biggest hit though could be to Baltimore itself, a city of close to 600,000 people whose stagnation and high-poverty neighborhoods were made famous by television show The Wire.

The bridge helped connect major parts of Baltimore and was key to its renaissance as a logistics and e-commerce hub after the shuttering of its steel industry. With its deep-water port, shortline railway and well-located interstate highway, the city attracted investors who have been pouring money into redevelopment.

One of the largest projects, Tradepoint Atlantic, has leased millions of square feet in warehouse space to some of the world’s biggest businesses, including Inc. and FedEx Corp.

Facing months of uncertainty, Baltimore and Maryland both declared a state of emergency.

Throughout the morning on Tuesday, crowds gathered in east Baltimore County, camping out in grassy spots or climbing highway guardrails to get a better look of the bridge and snap photos. Across the street from a Dollar General on Dundalk Avenue, residents discussed the roar of the structure collapsing, comparing it to a jet engine during takeoff.

Not far from the collapsed bridge, police changed shifts at the dock of the Hard Yacht Cafe in Dundalk. Officers getting off their boat had been circling the waters as part of the rescue effort for more than 10 hours, they said, adding that divers were searching for remaining victims in the water when they left the scene.

“This is one of the cathedrals of American infrastructure,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. “The path to normalcy will not be easy, it will not be quick, it will not be inexpensive, but we will rebuild together.”

Red Sea attacks could push more cargo to Port of Vancouver after record year: CEO

Attacks on cargo vessels in the Red Sea could drive more shippers toward the Port of Vancouver after a year of record-high volumes, its CEO said.

“We know that the Red Sea impacts have caused significant rerouting of cargo for vessel operators to all markets,” Peter Xotta, the head of the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority, said in an interview Friday.

“I expect that that could result in an increase in the short term for cargo into the Port of Vancouver,” he said. “We have seen a bump in volume in the early part of 2024. Some of that could be partly related to those events.”

Whether the trend continues depends on events closer to the Suez Canal, which container ships have largely avoided for months due to the ongoing conflict in the region.

Since December, maritime attacks by Iran-backed Houthi militants have pushed shippers to steer clear of the Red Sea and reroute around Africa, adding weeks to the journey.

On March 6, fighters struck the bulk carrier True Confidence, killing three civilians, the first deaths since the militants began to target ships linked to Israel, the U.S. or U.K.

A smattering of cargo vessels have opted to head east across the Pacific Ocean to North America from parts of Asia rather than make the prolonged westward voyage around the Cape of Good Hope.

“Any of these things that create greater volatility in the supply chain ultimately impact its performance and its cost,” Xotta said. “So greater stability is a good thing.”

Last year, an unprecedented 150.4 million tonnes of bulk, breakbulk and container goods traversed the docks at Canada’s largest port, the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority said.

The surge marked a six per cent increase from 2022, despite a sputtering global economy and a big drop in container shipments.

Bulk exports — wheat, canola and petroleum, especially — drove the increase, as did container exports and auto imports.

However, overstocked retail inventories and cooling demand dragged down container imports — and container shipments overall — the port authority said.

“It was a mixed year at the Port of Vancouver, with growth in some sectors and softening in others,” the federal agency said in a release.

“With the pandemic early on, we saw very strong consumer purchasing driving container volumes,” Xotta said in the interview.

He also noted the subsequent decline in spending on consumer items amid a higher cost of living and expenditures diverted increasingly toward services rather than products.

“One could foreshadow that through the course of 2024 and certainly early 2025 we’ll start to see recovery,” he said. “At least that’s our hope.”

A big drop in household goods — the category accounts for nearly a third of inbound container items, from towels to televisions — drove a 12 per cent decrease in container shipments overall at the port.

Some 79 per cent of household products came from China, with Vietnam and South Korea as distant runners-up. Fewer imported construction materials and industrial and auto parts also fuelled the fall in container figures.

The ramp-up in container exports — especially boxes loaded with wood pulp and specialty crops, such as lentils bound for India — helped offset the inbound slump.

An economic slowdown, a 13-day strike by B.C. dockworkers in July and ongoing disruptions along the Red Sea and Panama Canal trade routes all posed challenges to smooth operations at the port, Xotta said.

Its 12 per cent boost in overall exports to 142 countries in spite of those hurdles showcased the value of a diverse range of shipment types and national partners, he added.

Grain and crude oil — China and the U.S., respectively, received the most — drove the spike in bulk exports on the heels of a bumper crop and a record surge in oil output from Alberta. Fewer exports of forest products and fertilizer tamped down the figures.

Meanwhile, the number of vehicles that entered Canada via the port rose 36 per cent to more than 454,000, as manufacturers smoothed out supply chains.

But for many shippers, the year launched on stormy seas.

A drought in Central America piled on more problems amid the Red Sea crisis. The dry spell has sapped the Panama Canal of water, which is used to raise and lower ships at a dozen locks, prompting officials to cut the number of boats they let through the waterway.

“I anticipate that folks will be looking at the potential through Canadian supply chains as a result,” Xotta said.

However, routes between East Asia and the West Coast are generally less affected. While shipping rates on loads to the western United States from East Asia have tripled over the past year, rates on cargo headed the other direction have dropped 28 per cent, according to freight analytics firm Xeneta.

On Asia-Europe routes, rates have soared for cargo boats coming and going.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 22, 2024.

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