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Freight, shipping challenges expected after Baltimore bridge collapse

Katie Tabeling
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The Port of Wilmington has seen some cargo arrive since the span of the Key Bridge in Baltimore collapsed, but Delaware may see more transportation of goods on the highways. | PHOTO COURTESY OF GULFTAINER

WILMINGTON — While cranes were lifting a 200-ton section of the Francis Scott Key Bridge out of the Patapsco River in Maryland on Sunday, Trinity Logistics down in southern Delaware was still fielding a slow trickle of calls from prospective customers.

“Around mid-day, we were hearing from shippers and receivers that typically would use the Port of Baltimore. Our largest food shipper had about 27 containers at the Port of New York and New Jersey, and that couldn’t wait,” Trinity Logistics Senior Vice President of Agent Development Greg Massey told the Delaware Business Times.

When a container ship lost power and struck a supporting pier, causing a major span of the Key Bridge to collapse, major shockwaves were sent in the distribution network beyond Baltimore. While the Port of Baltimore remains blocked from the rest of the Chesapeake Bay, freight and export movements now have to find new paths of travel to their end destination.

Seaford-headquartered Trinity Logistics may be one of many freight and intermodal companies that could see more referrals as the supply chain is reset and other cargo vessels re-routed to New York, Norfolk and Philadelphia. Trinity has offices in seven other states, including Maryland. Massey said that most of the calls are from people with unfamiliar networks.

But while that’s good for building connections with new partners, it ultimately could drive costs up.

“About 75% of the freight received through the Baltimore port stays in the mid-Atlantic region. Now that it’s being re-routed to other ports, it will cause delays to getting to its final destination and raising freight rates,” Massey said. “Moving freight 15 miles compared to 150 miles will impact costs to shippers and receivers… and when you could have done 15-minute trips 10 times in a day for a client, you could only do three trips that are a half-hour.”

The Port Network

The Port of Baltimore is one of the 10 largest ports in the United States, with anywhere between 30 to 40 container vessels calling it every week, according to logistics analytics firm Everstream. In 2023, it handled roughly $80 billion of 50 million tons of cargo of international trade.

Looking at the big picture, Baltimore’s port holds just 4% of all East Coast trade volume, according to S&P Global. But in the immediate aftermath, there were 21,000 containers that had to be re-routed once the bridge collapsed and blocked passage in and out of the port.

That port is also a critical hub for steel, aluminum, sugar, agriculture equipment and cars from General Motors, Nissan, Toyota and Honda. It handled about 847,000 cars and light trucks last year, according to the Maryland Port Administration. 

Early analytics from Evestream estimated at least four container vessels were scheduled to arrive at the New York port within the first five days of the bridge collapse; Norfolk was to expect three while Philadelphia was predicted to receive one vessel.

In comparison, the Port of Wilmington, operated by Enstructure,  is smaller and handles an estimated 215,00 20-foot container vessels per year, according to Everstream Analytics. It also has the largest cold storage complex on site, working with companies like Dole Fresh Fruit Company and Chiquita Fresh North America weekly.

Others include “roll on, roll off” cargo ships on a regular basis, serving as a prime outbound port for finished cars to the Middle east and the Mediterranean, Everstream Analytics Senior Manager of Intelligence Solutions Jena Santoro said.

“Most finished vehicle exports are bound for the port of Jeddah in Saudi Arabia,” Santoro told DBT. “However, most container shipments are likely to divert south to Norfolk and most automotive shipments are likely to divert north to Philadelphia, just due to both ports having larger operations with more capacity than Wilmington. As no one port on the east coast can absorb all of Baltimore’s diverted cargo, shipments will have to be dispersed among all nearby ports.”

Enstructure President Bayard Hogans told DBT that the Port of Wilmington has handled around eight vessels, with a couple with automotive cars and the other major goods that comes through the Delaware gateway: forest products like pulp and paper Since those were existing customers, they were the first to call, Hogans said.

“There’s been some diversions of bulk commodities like steel,” Hogans said. “We just want to accommodate anyone we can, knowing that we’re the closest gateway to Baltimore knowing that cargo can come here and still service the market from a geographic perspective.”

The future of Delaware’s Gateway

The major supply chain rupture comes at a time when Port of Wilmington leadership is just getting its sea legs. Delaware officials terminated a longstanding contract with Gulftainer after facing financial struggles. Estructure signed a 55-year deal for an annual fee of $1 million to operate the port, and in exchange, the Massachusetts-based shipping company would invest $200 million in improvements.

Mollie LeBlanc, vice president of operations of Uber Freight, an end-to-end logistics partner, told DBT that the Port of Wilmington’s lack of container infrastructure has made it a less ideal destination for trade partners. With only two carriers that have regularly scheduled service in and out of the port — and irregular service for car, farm equipment and agriculture productions — it’s more like carriers will head to bigger ports.

“However, the Port of Wilmington seems to have decent roll-on, roll-off capabilities for auto, machinery, and equipment, which is the larger piece of volume that Baltimore was handling. Wilmington may be able to handle some of that volume,” LeBlanc said.

Another major factor limiting the Port of Wilmington in calling in carriers and vessels from Baltimore is how shallow the channel is.  As it stands, the Port of Wilmington is shallower than other surrounding ports, with the Christiana River at a maximum draft of 38 feet. Most large container ships need at least 40 feet and up to 50 feet.

Delaware Secretary of State Jeff Bullock, who also serves as the Diamond State Port Corporation chairman, acknowledged these limitations in the Port of Wilmington, but was bullish on future improvements there to boost the economy.

“Limitation on available capacity depends on things such as space, equipment, and workforce, among other things,” Bullock said in a prepared statement to DBT. “[The shallow water and limits on container space capacity] are two of the reasons that building a new container terminal at Edgemoor is so important in the long term. Our port can’t grow without it.”

Among the millions in planned improvements include upgrades and a future-build out of the Edgemoor container port. Enstructure has already agreed to invest $21.5 million to move the 100-acre Edgemoor project ahead and include its adjacent 25-acre, waterfront parcel to the project. Lack of progress on that project, among other issues, were the reason why Delaware ended its contract with Gulftainer.

But for now, the unimproved land around the port could be an immediate asset while cargo looks to be rerouted, Hogans said.

“Right now we have the additional land next to the port to utilize as a buffer,” he said. “So if we continue to handle vessel cargo, we have a place to load it. If you think of other ports, many are built against cities and don’t have anywhere to go,” Hogans continued. “Since Estructure has taken over, we have doubled the footprint. It’s a great opportunity to grow in the long run.”

Freight ways

Meanwhile, Delaware freight companies will see an impact from the fall out of the bridge collapse, but what it will look like remains to be seen.

With the loss of I-695 that went over the Key Bridge, so vanished an easy route to Washington D.C. Truck companies will have to use I-95 or other highways and some like Trinity Logistics will have to handle almost double the cargo needed to get back on track.

“Delays are anticipated to be short-term, but the increased freight costs will be an ongoing issue until freight can return to the Baltimore port. And that could take several months,” Massey said.

Trinity Logistics handles 560,000 shipments per year, with 400 people out of its seven offices – with half of them employed in Seaford. After the first few days, the company worked to get truck containers out of the Baltimore terminal, particularly with its largest food client that is minutes outside the city. That has led to some more outreach from companies who may not be used to the roadways near the ports they may be now shipped to.

Massey said he saw some trickle down effect possible for Delaware, but not at the port – and maybe a slight increase in traffic along I-95 along the way. He said that Trinity has been working with customers to help move shipments from New York, Philadelphia and even North and South Carolina that were expected to make port in Maryland.

“You could potentially see an increase in freight moving along the 95 corridor that would originally come directly into Baltimore but now is in-gating to New York. I don’t foresee that volume taking a direct route up or down the U.S. Route 113 or Delaware Route 1,” he said.

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