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5 FAQs About Rebuilding the Francis Scott Key Bridge

On March 26, 2024, a portion of the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore, Maryland collapsed after a large container ship, the Dali, crashed into one of its support piers. The 1.6-mile-long bridge was built in 1977 as an additional crossing of Baltimore’s harbor to alleviate congestion on the two existing tunnel crossings. Although much remains uncertain, this blog answers basic questions about the rebuilding of the Key Bridge.

1) What will the cost and timeline look like for rebuilding the bridge?

As the extent of damage is still being assessed, early estimates for the cost to rebuild the Key Bridge vary widely, ranging from $400 million to $2 billion. In contrast, construction of the original Key Bridge over four decades ago cost roughly $316 million, adjusted for inflation. Even according to more conservative estimates, the new Key Bridge will likely cost significantly more to rebuild due to the high price of building materials and changes in modern bridge design.

State and federal officials do not yet have an estimated rebuilding timeline. Construction of the original Key Bridge lasted five years, and some experts expect that the Key Bridge will most likely take at least a few years to rebuild due to the project’s scale and complexity, while others have argued it could be completed within a year if prioritized and expedited. The timeline will depend significantly on how efficiently the site can be cleared, how quickly funding is lined up, and whether any permitting and environmental review procedures delay its reconstruction.

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2) How can the bridge rebuild project be funded?

The Federal Highway Administration’s (FHWA) Emergency Relief (ER) Program supports the repair and reconstruction of highways and roads that suffer damage due to natural disasters or catastrophic failures from an external source. The ER program is generally allocated a maximum of $100 million per fiscal year and can cover 80-90% of a project’s cost, with the remainder to be covered by states and/or local transportation authorities. However, in past incidents, such as the Interstate 35W bridge collapse in Minnesota, Congress has made exceptions to allow ER funds to cover 100% of the cost for a specific project.

In late March, the Biden administration announced a $60 million “down payment” for initial rebuilding costs through the ER program. Members of the Maryland congressional delegation introduced bipartisan legislation in the House and Senate, authorizing the federal government to cover 100% of the cost for rebuilding the Key Bridge through the ER program, a proposal also supported by the Biden administration. However, some members of Congress have expressed opposition to the federal government covering 100% of the cost to rebuild.

According to one estimate, insured losses for the Port of Baltimore could total $2 to $4 billion, including the costs of business interruption due to the collapsed bridge. The Port of Baltimore could also try to recoup rebuilding and business interruption costs from a liable party, though an investigation is still underway to determine what caused the Dali to lose power and whether negligence played a role in the incident. The ship’s owner and manager filed a petition to limit their liability to $43.7 million.

The Biden administration has indicated that any potential damages or insurance payouts would be recouped and used to offset any ER funds awarded. However, the administration does not plan to wait for these sources of funding to become available, as insurance claims and legal decisions could take a long time and slow down the process.

3) What is the permitting and environmental review process for rebuilding a collapsed bridge?

 Before the Key Bridge rebuild begins, the project will need to  with the  (NEPA), which requires any project built with federal dollars to undergo a review for potential environmental impacts. In a project where one bridge is another, the new project is sometimes considered a  (CE), a class of projects excluded from more stringent review because they are determined to have a minimal environmental impact. However, a review may still be required due to the size, complexity, and potential changes to the bridge’s design, or if the rebuilding project new or more modern components.

In addition to NEPA, the bridge rebuild could require permits from additional state and federal agencies (e.g., the Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Coast Guard)—though waivers or simultaneous, coordinated reviews could speed up this process. FHWA previously studied the environmental review process for the I-35W Bridge replacement, along with several other bridges following their collapse, which may be instructive in this case. At the time, FHWA concluded that those projects, and associated project approvals, moved forward quickly because the emergency situation around them helped to eliminate a few key causes of general project delays—namely, helping to prioritize funding, minimize local controversy, remove opposition, and garner substantial support and commitment from local political leaders.

4) What could the broader economic impact of the collapse be?

 The Key Bridge’s collapse had an immediate and substantial impact on vehicle traffic in the area and the operation of the Port of Baltimore. For Maryland residents, the collapse has had a significant impact on daily life, as the 30,000 daily trips that previously crossed the bridge have been rerouted, increasing commute times.

The Port of Baltimore also closed as a result of the bridge collapse. Many local workers face a disruption in their work hours and fears of potential furlough or layoffs because of the collapse, as roughly 15,300 jobs are directly generated by the port, with an additional 140,000 jobs linked to port activities. The port closure has also created ripples across the national economy, as the port is the ninth largest in the nation by trade volume, handling over 52 million tons of foreign cargo last year alone. Prior to the collapse, the port handled between $100 to $200 million in goods every day.

However, less than a week after the incident, the port opened the first of three temporary channels for small vessels to resume operations. The Army Corps of Engineers hopes to reopen the port to normal traffic by the end of May, while Gov. Wes Moore (D-MD) announced major progress towards a full reopening in late April. Ultimately, the economic effects should be moderate as other ports along the East Coast will likely absorb Baltimore’s larger traffic until the port is fully reopened.

5) Are other bridges in the U.S. vulnerable to vessel collisions?

Between 1960 and 2015, 18 bridges collapsed in the United States due to a ship or barge collision.[i] The collapse of the Key Bridge does not appear to be the result of a structural deficiency, as the Dali was so massive that any 1,200-foot span of bridge could collapse on impact from the vessel. Today’s largest container vessels are roughly eight times the size of those existing when the Key Bridge was built, making such potential accidents a more pressing consideration today.

Dozens of older major bridges are vulnerable to vessel crashes because of their outdated or deteriorating protections—or because they lack protections altogether. Federal guidelines to include physical structures to protect bridges from vessel crashes were not published until the 1980s. One best practice is to incorporate “dolphins”—concrete blockades—among other physical structures to protect bridges. While the Key Bridge had four dolphins, the Dali sailed by them and collided with the bridge’s support piers instead.

The National Transit Safety Board (NTSB) has launched an investigation into the incident that could take one to two years to complete. Following an investigation, the NTSB will often propose safety recommendations directed to regulatory agencies, state and local jurisdictions, manufacturers, companies, and other organizations involved to prevent a similar incident.

[i] Does not include spontaneous bridge collapses due to structural weakness.

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