NYC ports expect increased shipping traffic following Baltimore bridge collapse

Freighter in Baltimore bridge collapse
A boat moves past a container ship as it rests against wreckage of the Francis Scott Key Bridge on Tuesday, March 26, 2024, as seen from Pasadena, Md. The container ship lost power and rammed into the major bridge in Baltimore early Tuesday, causing it to snap and plunge into the river below. Several vehicles fell into the chilly waters, and rescuers searched for survivors.
AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein

Following the stunning collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore on Tuesday, the Port of New York and New Jersey says it is gearing up for increased cargo shipping traffic.

The Key Bridge, a 1.6-mile truss crossing between Baltimore and Dundalk, Maryland, collapsed into the Patapsco River early Tuesday morning after a massive cargo vessel, the Dali, crashed into one of its support columns. The bridge, opened in 1977, broke apart and fell into the river within seconds. The ship had apparently lost power and issued a mayday call to transportation officials to halt traffic, but six people working on the bridge at the time remain unaccounted for.

The massive debris field is now blocking shipping access in and out of the Port of Baltimore, suspending shipping operations there. Vessels en route to that port will now make way to other East Coast marine terminals including that of New York and New Jersey.

Baltimore is the 20th largest port in the country and handles more automobile shipments than any other American port, about 850,000 in 2023.

The Port Authority said Tuesday it expects additional cargo traffic at the Port of New York and New Jersey from ships diverting course away from Baltimore. The bi-state agency says it has the capacity to handle more cargo than it currently is, noting it saw 20% more cargo in 2021 than now, but also expects many ships to divert instead to other East Coast ports further south, like Norfolk, VA or Savannah, GA.

“The Port Authority is in touch with our counterparts in Baltimore, and we stand ready to assist with emergency resources and any other assistance that may be needed,” said Bethann Rooney, port director at the Port Authority. “The Port of New York and New Jersey is proactively working with our industry partners to respond as needed and ensure supply chain continuity along the East Coast.”

Safety of bridges near NY ports

Cargo ship passes Verrazzano Bridge near Port of NY
A cargo ship passes under the Verrazzano Narrows Bridge in December 2023.Photo via Getty Images

Cargo vessels travel under the Verrazzano-Narrows and Bayonne Bridges to get to Port Authority facilities like Port Newark and Elizabeth Port Authority Marine Terminal in New Jersey and Howland Hook Marine Terminal in Staten Island, the agency said. The Port Authority says large vessels like the 948-foot Dali would be escorted into port by at least four tugboats with local pilots.

A Port Authority spokesperson said that the Bayonne Bridge was raised in 2019 to accommodate larger ships, and the bridge’s piers are far outside the shipping channel, unlike on the Key Bridge, and have a “fender system” protecting them.

The MTA, meanwhile, says the Verrazzano is equipped with a special “rip rap system” of rock islands around its tower bases to prevent serious damage from ship collisions.

“MTA bridges are equipped with a wide range of safety technology, including ship collision protections,” said Cathy Sheridan, president of MTA Bridges & Tunnels. “The Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge, where the largest ship traffic passes, is a special case in that has a robust rip rap system…which would cause a ship to run aground before it could do significant damage to the bridge.”

The Key Bridge opened to traffic in 1977, a period before bridges were designed to withstand vessel collision, wrote engineer Matt Dursh on X (formerly known as Twitter). New bridges have been designed to withstand ship collisions since the collapse of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge  over Tampa Bay, Florida in 1980, Dursh wrote. That collapse resulted in 35 deaths.

Large container ships do not generally pass under the George Washington Bridge, the Port Authority spokesperson said. Such ships also don’t pass under East River bridges operated by the New York City Department of Transportation, an agency spokesperson said.

Speaking to reporters at the White House, President Joe Biden called the rescue effort for the missing workers his “top priority” and said he will call on Congress to cover the entire cost of rebuilding the bridge, which saw about 35,000 vehicle crossings daily. Port operations in Baltimore are suspended until further notice but the president said he intends to get them back on track as soon as possible.

“I’ve directed my team to move heaven and earth to reopen the port and rebuild the bridge as soon as humanly possible,” said Biden. “And we’re gonna work hand in hand to support Maryland in whatever they ask for.”