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Baltimore bridge collapse as sign of US infrastructure decline

Transport in America is at a crisis point. The collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore clearly illustrates this.

As the US shipbuilding industry has shrunk dramatically over the past few decades, the transport of goods by water in the US is severely restricted. America even has restrictions on transporting its own liquefied natural gas between domestic ports due to a shortage of domestically produced tankers, the Financial Times reports.

The container ship accident that led to the collapse of a bridge in Baltimore is a huge red flag that points to America’s decaying infrastructure. After all, the system has not been substantially upgraded since the Eisenhower era, although the Biden administration has begun its fiscal stimulus programme.

Pictures of the collapsed bridge in Baltimore that blocked access to the port on 26 March are on the front pages of newspapers and many social media outlets. It would seem that the photo should show a lot of workers and repair equipment, however, as we can see, there is no active work on restoration yet.

Officials do not yet have a timeline for reopening the canal or rebuilding the bridge, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” He noted:

“This is going to be a very complex process. There are, even now, forces acting on that steel, so it takes a lot to make sure that it can be dismantled safely, to make sure that the vessel stays where it is supposed to be and doesn’t swing out into the channel.”

Removing thousands of tonnes of steel and concrete lying on the bow of the ship will be one of the most difficult parts of the dismantling operation, officials said.

Rebuilding the bridge will take longer, Buttigieg said in an interview with CNN:

“I can tell you the original bridge took about five years to build, but that doesn’t necessarily inform us about the timeline on the reconstruction. We don’t fully know everything we need to know about the condition of the portions of the bridge that did not collapse.”

Ten days after the bridge collapse, the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) announced in a press release a “schedule to restore safe navigation to and from the Port of Baltimore.” The press release said:

“USACE expects the 280-foot-wide, 35-foot-deep limited access channel to be operational by the end of April. This channel will support one-way traffic to and from the Port of Baltimore to serve container barges as well as some vessels transporting automobiles and agricultural equipment to and from the port. USACE engineers expect to construct a much wider and permanent federal navigation channel 700 feet wide and 50 feet deep by the end of May, restoring full access to the port. The US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) Baltimore County continues to work with local, state and federal partners to clear debris along the Fort McHenry Channel following the collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge.”

Captain John Conrad, CEO of the maritime portal gCaptain, posted a scathing message at X dissecting what’s behind the words:

“The truth is that the Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for bridging, but they are so unprepared that they have handed over leadership of the rescue operation to the Navy. The Navy’s rescue effort is so neglected that they have had to outsource it to a US subsidiary/partner of a European firm that charters equipment from private companies for big bucks.”

Conrad also added that China would have achieved “a complete cleanup of the Baltimore Ship Channel in weeks,” not months.

The USACE is a government-owned engineering company that employs 24,000 people. They build and operate river navigation infrastructure, create flood control systems, dredge seaports, and operate hydroelectric power plants.”

Over the past decades, the degradation of USACE’s technical and intellectual potential has reached such a bottom that not a day goes by that the corporation of American military engineers is not subjected to a barrage of harsh criticism and even ridicule.

USACE has previously been entrusted with large-scale engineering work that has been a huge failure. USACE built the levees erected to protect New Orleans from Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The newspaper Mother Jones wrote about this incident:

“Hurricane Katrina exposed terrible flaws not only in New Orleans’ levees, but also in the agency that designed and built them, the US Army Corps of Engineers. After the storm, investigators discovered that design errors were to blame for the collapse of several levees, causing flooding in much of the city. This is the first time in its storied history, which began during the War of Independence, that the Corps has admitted to making fundamental engineering mistakes. The Corps’ internal investigation also revealed problems in the city’s levees, some elements of which were carelessly constructed and did not even fit together.”

While the US government is scrambling to find professionals abroad for lack of its own experts, analysts are calculating the losses from the bridge collapse.

The collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore could cost insurers billions of dollars in claims, analysts say, with one estimating it at as much as $4 billion, which would make the tragedy a record loss for shipping insurance.

According to AM Best, the group’s total excess of loss insurance coverage reaches $3.1 billion.

The US Department of Transportation has warned of long-term consequences for the logistics market, The Guardian reports. Baltimore is the ninth busiest port in the US and the first in terms of car traffic. It has been used by Volvo, JLR, Ford and General Motors, among others. The latter two said they would divert their shipments. Toyota said the disaster “could affect exports”. The newspaper’s interlocutor also expects problems with coal supplies.

As for the investigation of the incident, Washington will also need the help of foreign experts. For example, NTSB head Jennifer Homendy said that Korean conglomerate Hyundai sent its experts to the container ship to help “download data from the electrical system and inspect circuit breakers.” She claimed:

“That is where our focus is right now in this investigation. Of course, that’s preliminary. It could take different roads, different paths as we continue this investigation.”

As we can see, the huge, majestic superpower of the United States is in dire need of highly qualified engineers, as domestic specialists are unlikely to be able to repair a collapsed bridge promptly, the damage to which has already been felt by the world economy. So is a nation that cannot even maintain its infrastructure with its own resources really so powerful?

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