What the Baltimore Bridge Collapse Means for the Supply Chain

Tue, Jun 04, 2024 at 9:20AM

Trent Cotney, Partner, Adams and Reese LLP

In the early hours of Tuesday morning, March 26, a 985-foot container ship issued a Mayday call before striking a pillar of the Francis Scott Key Bridge, which spans the Patapsco River and part of Baltimore Harbor. The bridge collapsed from the impact.

Due to the Mayday warning and the time of day, the loss of life was not as large as it might have been. However, late Tuesday night, the Coast Guard called off its search for the six construction workers who had been repairing potholes when the accident occurred and were unaccounted for. Two others had been rescued.

The incident was sudden and horrific and the cause will likely take some time to determine. Meanwhile, the destruction of the bridge will necessitate traffic diversions and lead to supply chain disruptions for many months to come.

Details of the Bridge and Port

Named for Francis Scott Key, a Maryland-born lawyer who wrote the 1814 poem that later became our national anthem, the bridge was used by approximately 30,000 people each day. It carried both the Baltimore Beltway and I-695. With the 1.6-mile bridge destroyed, the shipping lane into the Port of Baltimore is now closed as the waters are cleared of debris and, presumably, plans are made to rebuild it. The port is off-limits to all vessel traffic for now; however, trucks can still access its terminals.

The Port of Baltimore is not one of the biggest U.S. ports, but it is a significant shipping hub. With twelve private terminals and five public ones, it services container ships, bulk carriers and passengers. It is the busiest U.S. port for automobiles, importing and exporting more than 800,000 vehicles each year. About 20 percent of the nation’s coal also passes through the port. In 2023, the port handled more than 52 million tons of foreign cargo worth more than $80 billion.

Supply Chain Consequences

The port closure will result in an East Coast shipping disruption for vehicles and coal, as well as for “roll-on/roll-off” machinery used in farm work and construction. According to the Census Bureau, the Port of Baltimore accepted imports of some $9 billion in such machinery in 2023, making it the top “roll-on/roll-off” port. In 2023, it also managed $2 billion of aluminum, $1 billion of iron and steel and $1 billion of wood.

There are more than 3,000 distribution centers, warehouses and factories in a 30-mile radius of the Port of Baltimore, facilities that likely rely on the port. Its closure will affect deliveries across the nation and around the world.

Although the supply chain has recovered since the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, parts of it are still strained. For example, the Panama Canal has had to reduce traffic due to low water levels and shipping companies have been avoiding the Suez Canal due to Houthis attacks on vessels in the Red Sea. The closure of this port will add to that strain. In addition, this closure will impact other ports as ships destined for Baltimore must be diverted elsewhere.

When the Francis Scott Key Bridge opened in 1977, it provided a much-needed route for the city. It completed the I-695 circle and offered a bypass for transporting hazardous materials prohibited in tunnels. Without that bridge, so many vehicles will have to use a slower, longer route to get where they need to go.

Final Thoughts

Any disruption to the supply chain, no matter how large or small, has ripple effects. Individuals and companies should prepare for delays and slow-downs just in case as the system adjusts and materials are rerouted. As always, it is important for businesses to communicate with their customers and their vendors, working together to anticipate and plan for late deliveries. Make sure your contracts have material availability provisions that discuss extensions of time associated with material delays.


The information contained in this article is for general educational information only. This information does not constitute legal advice, is not intended to constitute legal advice, nor should it be relied upon as legal advice for your specific factual pattern or situation.

Trent Cotney is a partner and Construction Practice Group Leader at the law firm of Adams and Reese LLP and FRSA General Counsel. You can contact him at 813-227-5501 or trent.cotney@arlaw.com.

Bookmark & Share