Rebuilding the Francis Scott Key Bridge over the Patapsco River will probably take years and cost hundreds of millions of dollars, experts said. But the shipping channel from the Port of Baltimore, a major economic engine for the city, could be cleared in months.

On Wednesday, federal agencies were working to recover the bodies of six construction workers who died after the bridge collapsed, and investigators for the first time boarded the ship that struck the well-traveled span.

The container ship Dali, apparently suffering a power failure, directly struck one of the piers of the 47-year-old bridge at 1:28 a.m. Tuesday. Quick action by officers with the Maryland Transportation Authority police in the minute immediately before the collision stopped traffic from entering the bridge and saved numerous lives, officials said. But there was no time to warn a construction crew working on the middle of the 1.6-mile span. Two workers were rescued, but six are presumed dead.

President Biden pledged that the federal government would foot the bill to repair the bridge, which state officials said carried more than 30,000 vehicles a day.

“I’m directing my team to move heaven and earth to reopen the port and rebuild the bridge as soon as humanly possible,” Biden said.

Rep. David Trone, D-Md., a member of the House Appropriations Committee, said lawmakers were exploring the use of “quick release” emergency relief funds to aid in the effort in partnership with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and the “urgent deployment of congressionally approved funding.”


Some experts said it’s unlikely even a new bridge could withstand the impact of a direct hit from a massive cargo ship, though some called for an improved warning system in the channel that could more effectively evacuate people and stop traffic in the event of a runaway ship. And they warned residents to brace for a protracted process.

Benjamin W. Schafer, professor of civil and systems engineering at Johns Hopkins University, said it could take months to remove debris and reopen the channel. “I’d be shocked if it’s weeks,” he said. “But I don’t think it’d take even a year. There is certainly that technology for moving the steel out as quickly as possible.”

Reconstructing the bridge is expected to take much longer.

The original Key Bridge took five years to build in the 1970s. Schafer noted that it took seven years to rebuild the Sunshine Skyway Bridge over Tampa Bay, which collapsed after being struck by a freighter in 1980.

“I’ve lived through quite a few civil infrastructure projects,” Schafer said, “and they’re rarely less than 10 years. So I think that’s what we’re looking at.” He added: “The price tags never seem to be out of the hundreds of millions these days. So I’d be shocked if we’re not at least in that hundreds of millions of dollars.” When the bridge opened in 1977, it cost $60.3 million, which is equivalent to $316 million today.

Atorod Azizinamini, a civil engineering professor at the Florida International University who specializes in structural and bridge engineering, said it is possible for Baltimore to see a new Key Bridge within 2½ years. He described that as a breakneck speed compared with the standard timetable for building similar bridges, which could take as long as a decade from conception to execution.


“Things could go very fast here because everyone knows the world is watching,” Azizinamini said.

The professor, who also directs a center for bridge engineering professionals, said that in typical cases, there is an order of operations to bridge construction involving environmental impact analyses, permits, design, contracting, fabrication and construction. That process could take several years, and the funding for it is most crucial – and, often, most time-consuming. In the case of the Key Bridge, Biden’s pledge of federal dollars could shave years off the project, Azizinamini said.

As the new bridge is designed, experts said planners should examine ways to prevent future collisions. Azizinamini also said he noticed structural vulnerabilities in the Key Bridge when watching videos of its collapse. He said the piers were not as protected as they should have been.

“This was an accident waiting to happen if you don’t protect the columns of support from a ship,” he said. “And in this case, it happened.”

Azizinamini said he expects to see new guidance from the National Transportation Safety Board recommending that engineers reexamine older bridges and build new protecting structures if needed.

Some states are building protection systems around vital bridges. Last year, officials from a joint New Jersey and Delaware bridge authority announced work on eight 80-foot-wide, stone-filled cylinders designed to protect the Delaware Memorial Bridge. The existing protection for the bridge tower piers dates to 1951.


“Today’s tankers and ships are bigger and faster than those of the 1950s and 1960s,” the officials said in a statement announcing the nearly $93 million project.

After the Sunshine Skyway Bridge collapse, which killed 35 people, stronger national standards, including protection from errant ships, were adopted for bridges in the years that followed, safety experts said.

Sherif El-Tawil, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Michigan with expertise in bridges, said if the Key Bridge had been built after those updated standards from the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials were put in place, the span could still be standing.

When the Key Bridge was constructed in the 1970s, transportation planners considered building a tunnel on the route where the bridge was built. But hazardous materials aren’t allowed in tunnels, and the Key Bridge was the main route for carrying them around and through Baltimore, said Rachel Sangree, a professor in civil and systems engineering at Johns Hopkins.

“So my expectation is we will rebuild a bridge,” Sangree said. “But will it be in the exact same place and form, and everything? It’ll be an open question of what we’re trying to do. And will a bridge be big enough to accommodate these ships? Yes, certainly. But there is a real challenge here with the scale of these cargo ships; they are still going to be similar in scale to the bridge. And we will need to put in a more robust system so that a strike like that doesn’t happen again.”


Michael Laris contributed to this report.

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