In the wake of Baltimore bridge collapse, ships could be diverted to Philly

The Baltimore port is now inaccessible, meaning nearby ports need to absorb the traffic.

Ships could be diverted to Philly after the Baltimore bridge collapse. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Ships could be diverted to Philly after the Baltimore bridge collapse. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

What you need to know

The Port of Baltimore suspended all maritime traffic until further notice after a container ship slammed into the Francis Scott Key Bridge and caused it to collapse early Tuesday morning.

Trucks are still being processed within its marine terminals but there’s no vessels allowing imports or exports, according to port officials.

Beyond commuter and commercial traffic snarls, six people who were working on the bridge before the incident remain missing.

The Port of Baltimore handled 37 million tons of cargo in 2021, the 17th largest in the nation, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

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In the meantime, dozens of vessels must dock somewhere else to load and unload products.

The Port of Philadelphia handled 31 million tons of cargo in 2021, so that’s one option to keep the supply chain moving.

“We have capacity if needed to accommodate some of that [Baltimore] cargo,” said Ryan Mulvey, director of government and public affairs for PhilaPort.

It’s an unusual situation in the sense that ports typically compete for customers and their cargo, but there’s a spirit of collaboration right now.

“The port community is a relatively small community. PhilaPort stands ready to assist the Port of Baltimore in any capacity, not just in terms of securing the nation’s supply chain,” Mulvey said.

It’s most likely that the Port of Philadelphia could help alleviate ships with automobiles.

Baltimore is the busiest port in the nation for vehicle shipments; the port handled 847,158 automobiles and light trucks in 2023. Automakers like Ford and GM are already rerouting their shipments from Baltimore.

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The Port of Philadelphia invested in its auto processing facility in recent years.

“Last year alone we handled over 250,000 new Hondas, Kias and Genesis [vehicles] through the Port of Philadelphia. So we have the capacity to take on some of those ships if they are diverted,” Mulvey said.

The 24/7 supply chain is often only on display when there’s an issue, like during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic when there were long delays at West Coast ports, an issue that’s happening again.

Big ocean carriers filled with containers supposed to dock in Baltimore are likely going to be rerouted south toward the Port of Virginia — which transported 65 million tons of cargo in 2021. There’s already one vessel that stopped in Virginia en route to Baltimore that’s being handled at the Port of Virginia.

But not even that larger port could absorb all of Baltimore’s vehicle shipments, which need to be distributed along the East Coast.

“That is a significant operation in Baltimore and that will need to be redistributed,” said Stephen Edwards, CEO of the Port of Virginia. “We have some capacity but not sufficient to handle the cargo volumes that Baltimore does.”

But there’s other options, like big operators such as the Port of New York and New Jersey or smaller operations like the Port of Wilmington in Delaware.

“We anticipate that the Port of Wilmington will receive some cargo that will be diverted from the Port of Baltimore. Our port operator, Enstructure, has received calls from some of Baltimore’s shippers and they are in the process of coordinating the logistics of handling additional cargo,” said Jeff Bullock, chairman of the Diamond State Port Corporation in a statement. “That cargo could include pulp, lumber, bulk cargo, automobiles, and perhaps other things. The amount of additional cargo Wilmington will receive will depend on the type of cargo, our capacity to handle it, and where the cargo is ultimately destined to go.”

While a bridge collapse is a very unusual situation, ports go offline for other reasons and nearby operators pitch in.

“There have been natural disasters. Think back to Superstorm Sandy which closed the Port of New York [and New Jersey] for a period of time. Hurricane Katrina, which closed the Port of New Orleans for a while. The industry does normally respond very well,” said Edwards.

Shipping companies may have to bear higher costs, though contracts are negotiated before vessels set sail, so if the ships dock at a different port the shipping contract price doesn’t change.

“The shipping will remain the contracted cost. But they may have extra landside cost,” Edwards said.

Overall, consumers are unlikely to notice a change in the supply chain — unless the closure lingers for years — said John McCown, senior fellow at the Center for Maritime Strategy.

“[The Port of Baltimore’s] capacity can be absorbed in other ports. The East Coast has more ports than any other coast,” McCown said. “I don’t think consumers will even notice this again because it’s such a relatively small amount [of tonnage] and adjustments will be made right away.”

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