Engineers and infrastructure experts weigh in on Baltimore’s Key Bridge collapse

The recent collapse of Baltimore’s Francis Scott Key Bridge has brought attention to the urgent need for bridge reform in the United States. Experts in engineering and infrastructure policy have emphasized the importance of establishing an international standard for large cargo ships to ensure the safety and stability of bridges.

The Key Bridge experienced a partial collapse during the early hours of Tuesday morning. This unfortunate incident occurred when a massive cargo ship collided with one of the bridge’s support columns. As a result, several vehicles were sent plunging into the Patapsco River below. Officials have reported that six individuals are currently unaccounted for.

Officials have stated that the investigation into the cause of both the collision and the bridge collapse is still ongoing.

Rick Geddes, a renowned infrastructure policy expert and the director of the Cornell University Infrastructure Policy Program, shared his insights on the infrastructure and safety of the Key Bridge.

Geddes, in a statement to ABC News, expressed his concern over the vulnerability of America’s critical infrastructure to unexpected disasters and deliberate acts of destruction. According to Geddes, the recent bridge collapse highlights the inadequacy of its design to withstand the impact and weight of a massive cargo ship colliding with one of its pylons. In an interview with ABC News, Geddes further emphasized his belief that the bridge was not structurally prepared to handle such a forceful and substantial collision.

According to Geddes, pylons or piers serve as the crucial load-bearing elements in cable-supported bridges like Baltimore’s Key Bridge, which is a continuous truss-style bridge spanning 1.6 miles.

Modern protective measures for bridge piers now incorporate the use of “fenders.” These protection systems are specifically designed to safeguard the bridge from vessels that pass under or near it, as stated by the U.S. Coast Guard.

According to the Coast Guard, modern bridges are equipped with fenders that feature “dolphins” – circular walls filled with materials like sand or concrete. These bridges also have “artificial islands” around the piers, which are made of a sand core and protected by armored slope protection to withstand wave and current action.

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The availability of fenders on the Baltimore Key Bridge at the time of the crash remains uncertain.

ABC News’ request for a comment from the Maryland Transportation Authority went unanswered at the time of writing.

During a press briefing, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg expressed his thoughts on the bridge’s capacity to withstand a significant cargo ship collision. He stated, “What we do know is that a bridge like this, constructed in the 1970s, was not designed to endure a direct impact on a crucial support pier from a vessel weighing approximately 200 million pounds.”

According to Buttigieg, there is currently a lot of discussion among engineers about the potential impact of these features in a situation like this.

According to officials, the cargo ship named Dali, which is operated by Synergy Marine Group, collided with the bridge while traveling at a speed of 8 knots, equivalent to about 9 mph. The ship measures 984 feet in length and 157 feet in width.

According to Geddes, the force exerted on the bridge is significant and any design should be able to withstand it. He also pointed out that the bridge was not originally built to handle such force.

The Maryland Transportation Authority (MDTA) stated that the construction of Baltimore’s Francis Scott Key Bridge commenced in 1972 and was completed in March 1977.

According to Maria Lehman, the former president of the American Society of Civil Engineers, older bridges were not designed considering the ship allowances after the Panama Canal expansion.

In 2016, the Panama Canal expansion project made significant enhancements to the canal by constructing wider and deeper pathways on both the Atlantic and Pacific ends. The purpose behind these improvements was to effectively accommodate larger cargo ships, allowing for smoother and more efficient transportation.

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According to Lehman, the Key Bridge in Baltimore was not designed to accommodate the larger cargo ships that we see today, making it inadequate for their needs.

According to Lehman, the pier protection on long-span bridges constructed in the past decade is designed to accommodate the increasing weight of modern ships.

Lehman recalled how the recent Key Bridge collapse brought back memories of the devastating Sunshine Skyway Bridge collapse in Tampa, Florida, back in 1980. She described the two bridges as being “very similar” and noted that the tragedy in Tampa led to the establishment of a “base standard for pier protection” across the country.

In May 1980, the Skyway Bridge suffered a major collapse when the M/V Summit Venture freighter struck a support beam, resulting in the tragic loss of 35 lives. This devastating incident, now 44 years ago, has played a significant role in prompting important engineering alterations in the construction of subsequent bridges, as highlighted by Lehman.

In the aftermath of the Skyway Bridge incident, it was three years later when the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration issued a technical advisory called “Pier Protection and Warning Systems for Bridges Subject to Ship Collisions.”

The agency emphasized in its 1983 advisory the challenges of retrofitting existing bridge piers with protective systems. It stressed the importance of recognizing the potential hazards posed by ship collisions and highlighted the need to strategically locate and design piers on new bridges to minimize the risks of such collisions to an acceptable level.

The Key Bridge in Baltimore, which was built in 1977, lacked the protective pier measures that are now included in more recent bridge constructions.

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According to Lehman, there is no requirement to bring any piece of infrastructure up to code unless a major retrofit is being done. However, he believes that the collapse of the Key Bridge should serve as a wake-up call for the improvement and reform of bridge infrastructure.

According to Lehman, the recent event serves as a wake-up call, much like the Sunshine Skyway incident. He believes that it is essential to carefully examine the outcomes of this incident and develop a plan to prevent such occurrences in the future. Lehman emphasizes the need for proactive measures to ensure that similar incidents are avoided moving forward.

In June 2023, officials from the Delaware River and Bay Authority (DRBA) made an exciting announcement about the upcoming construction of the Delaware Memorial Bridge Protection System.

“Our aim is to proactively implement measures to prevent any commercial vessel from colliding with one of the bridge towers, as this could result in substantial damage to the bridge infrastructure and disrupt interstate travel,” stated Thomas J. Cook, executive director of the DRBA, in a press release.

According to the release, the project is estimated to cost approximately $93 million.

Rick Geddes is optimistic that the catastrophic Key Bridge collapse will serve as a catalyst for much-needed reform in the safety of America’s bridge infrastructure.

According to Geddes, the potential scenario of a colossal container ship colliding with a bridge pylon and resulting in the collapse of the bridge is no longer just a theoretical concept. He believes that this incident will prompt a renewed initiative to thoroughly inspect and evaluate the condition of numerous bridges across the United States.

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