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Baltimore ship accident has East Coast ports scrambling to absorb cargo

Brendan Murray, Bloomberg News on

Published in News & Features

Ports along the U.S. East Coast are modifying their operations to absorb cargo diverted from Baltimore harbor, where salvage specialists are starting the daunting task of clearing debris from the destroyed Francis Scott Key Bridge.

The Port of Virginia, with terminals at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay near Norfolk, is opening a gate Monday at 5 a.m. — an hour earlier than usual — to help accommodate more truckers. The Port of New York and New Jersey, which is expecting additional cargo including autos, is working to allow quick access for transport companies that usually go through Baltimore. A major railroad is expanding its services, too.

Fallout from last week’s deadly bridge collapse, which indefinitely closed the nation’s 17th-largest port by total cargo tonnage and the busiest gateway for vehicles, is expected to be largely contained as neighboring facilities with spare capacity tweak their schedules. Snarls, delays and added costs are more likely to appear outside ports as tens of thousands of shipments require longer routes on already-crowded roadways and rail lines.

“The ports on the East Coast can easily absorb the immediate aftermath on containerized trade,” said Sanne Manders, president of international operations at Flexport Inc., a digital freight platform. “The longer-term aftermath will probably be more severe, because even if you take away the debris from the port, that is an extremely important bridge as a feeder into the port, and traffic will have to reroute a long, long way.”

CSX Corp., the Jacksonville, Florida-based railroad, said it’s starting to offer a rail service designed to move diverted Baltimore freight from New York.

Norfolk, New York and Charleston, South Carolina, are most often the next destination for cargo ships leaving Baltimore on scheduled routes, according to an analysis from the International Monetary Fund’s PortWatch platform. That makes them the likeliest to absorb more imports in the short term.

 

As of Sunday, there were 29 bulk cargo, container and vehicle carriers anchored outside 10 ports between Boston and Jacksonville, compared with 18 on Saturday, according to satellite tracking data compiled by Bloomberg.

While there’s no timeline yet for reopening the Baltimore channel, giant cranes are being put in place to begin dismantling wreckage from the bridge, U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said Sunday. It’s important “to our national supply chains to get that port back up and running as quickly as possible,” he said on CBS’s Face the Nation.

Maryland Gov. Wes Moore said the port closure will have ripple effects across the eastern U.S. “This port is one of the busiest inside the country, so this will impact the farmer in Kentucky, and the auto dealer in Ohio and the restaurant owner in Tennessee,” he said on CNN’s State of the Union.

Gateways including New York’s and Virginia’s are handling about 20% less volume than they were during their pandemic peaks, leaving officials confident they have the extra capacity to avoid extended bottlenecks.

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