Collapse in Baltimore: America’s Infrastructure put through the reconstruction test

The challenge of rebuilding bridges to support port and maritime trade development

The collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore, caused by the impact of the container ship Dali against a pillar of the central span, has caused a stir and sparked new controversies. The incident, provoked by the ship, which is 300 meters (985 feet) long and flies the flag of Singapore, sounded like yet another alarm bell for the state of maintenance of these important infrastructures in the United States.

According to the national inspection standards of the Department of Transportation, more than 42,000 bridges across the country are in poor condition. This amounts to 7.5% of those currently in service. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), these deficient infrastructures account for 178 million trips every day. The ASCE itself estimated a need for $125 billion in repairs by 2021, a figure partly covered by federal funds allocated by the Jobs Act passed that same year for the improvement of the American infrastructure system.

The hub of major logistics poles

The Baltimore bridge, however, inaugurated on March 23, 1977, and certainly not one of the most obsolete bridges in the USA, collapsed in seconds like a house of cards. After “just” 47 years of service, the collapse on March 26 represents a significant case for the United States, as it was not caused by structural deficiencies but by a maritime accident. The port of Baltimore, moreover, is one of the busiest in North America and ranks ninth among those with the highest value of goods handled.

According to data cited by the Associated Press on the day of the incident, from 1960 to 2015, there were 35 major bridge collapses worldwide due to ship or barge collisions, with a total of about 350 casualties. And eighteen of these collapses occurred in the United States, a sign of a system that is proving inadequate for the growth of maritime traffic, the size of the new ships, and ultimately, the safety of navigation and the people crossing the bridges.

Major ports for new sea routes

Maritime trade in the last decade has brought about a radical change in US ports, many of which have had to dredge the seabed to accommodate the New Panamax fleets passing through the new Panama Canal, one of the most complex and important infrastructures of the last decade, built by a consortium led by Webuild and operational since June 2016, to cross the continent from one ocean to another in less than ten hours.

The Department of Transportation, in a report prepared for the new Central American waterway, listed Baltimore among the four port terminals on the East Coast (alongside Norfolk, New York/New Jersey, and Miami) with sufficient water depth to accommodate these ships, evaluated at 50 feet (15.2 meters). A depth reached on the Pacific coast by Los Angeles, Long Beach, Oakland, and Seattle. In some cases, however, access to the port terminal is hindered by bridges not high enough to allow maritime traffic under their respective spans.

This was the case with Long Beach, which, despite deep berths, 10 super-equipped docks, and 66 New Panamax cranes, was unable to benefit from the increase in maritime traffic because the old Gerard Desmond Bridge, too low, represented a barrier to the entry of the super ships. The city, in conjunction with the port system of Los Angeles, where about a third of the goods reaching the United States by sea arrive, wasted no time and instead of improving the old bridge, decided to replace and remove it.

Thus, in October 2020, the new cable-stayed bridge, built by Webuild, entered into operation. Named Long Beach International Gateway, it is the second tallest bridge of its kind in the United States, with its two towers rising about 525 feet (160 meters). At just under 8,900 feet (2,700 meters) long with a main span of 1,000 feet (305 meters), it allows the port to expand its operations with innovative technological and structural standards, still not present in dozens of non-obsolete bridges but, like the Francis Scott Key Bridge, lagging behind in terms of safety.