On Point: Key Bridge Catastrophe Exposes America's Fragile Transport System

by Austin Bay
March 28, 2024

The Baltimore bridge catastrophe, which dominates this week's news, is at best an instructive disaster.

It definitely illustrates the fragility of human life. When the container ship MV Dali smashed into Baltimore's Francis Scott Key Bridge, the collision and bridge collapse presumably killed at least six people. The six were in a repair party of eight men working on the bridge's roadway. The eight fell 185 feet into icy water. Miraculously, two survived the fall.

As for vehicle passengers crossing the bridge? The Dali's crew managed to send a mayday signal to the Maryland Department of Transportation. The crew had lost control of the nearly 1,000-feet-long, 95,000-ton vessel -- a propulsion problem -- and the ship was on track to hit the bridge. Alert security personnel immediately closed the bridge and diverted traffic.

Quick, professional action can save human lives. As I write this column, it appears that no vehicles with passengers were lost, which is truly miraculous given the bridge is part of Interstate 695 and every day some 30,000 vehicles cross it.

That is a lot of traffic that will have to use other routes. I-95 and other East Coast highways are already clogged.

The FBI and Maryland security agencies say there are no signs of foul play -- as in a terrorist attack or a pirate hijacking. The collision was a terrible accident.

Accidents happen, we know that. The Deepwater Horizon offshore oil platform disaster (April 2010) was a maritime accident, ultimately blamed on defective cement in the well and "systemic" causes, including iffy equipment and poor safety practices. Eleven workers died, and it cost between $75 billion and $80 billion.

Did the MV Dali's collision involve poor maintenance or, as several commentators have asked, substandard fuel fouling the engines? A thorough investigation will eventually answer those questions.

But piracy (violent economic crime) and terrorism (violent political crime) also happen, and they are not accidents. The terrorists' war on everyone continues. The March 22 Islamic State-Khorasan (ISIS-K) terrorist attack in Moscow killed around 140 people and injured 100 more. Somali pirates are once again preying on commercial ships off East Africa. Recently, the Indian Navy captured 35 Somali pirates near the entrance to the Red Sea and took them back to India for prosecution.

The Red Sea -- the Houthis, an Iranian proxy force, are seizing commercial vessels but also waging war on global commerce. Striking Israeli and Western commercial ships and attacking Western naval vessels are specific acts of war. They also spike maritime insurance costs -- which attacks every nation's economy.

The Houthis leverage a geographical chokepoint, the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, which connects the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean. Their attacks can close the narrow strait.

The Key Bridge has closed the narrow passage connecting Baltimore's harbor to Chesapeake Bay. A terror attack could have happened. Deepwater Horizon was an accident -- but terrorists can attack offshore platforms. Mexican cartels have seized Mexican oil platforms, for ransom.

In 2020, the port of Corpus Christi, Texas, handled 55% of market share of U.S. crude exports. A study of the canal connecting Corpus Christi to Port Aransas and then the Gulf of Mexico determined the canal can be blocked in several places. Close Houston's or Corpus Christi's connecting channel and American energy and chemical supplies suffer an instant blockade, without an enemy risking naval forces. The entire U.S. economy suffers, and so does U.S. military defense.

What will the Key Bridge catastrophe cost the U.S. economy? Two sources say the macro-effects will be minimal. The Port of Baltimore, however, directly employs some 15,000 people and is very important to the U.S. auto industry. The Detroit Free Press reported around 850,000 vehicles are shipped in and out of the port annually: "General Motors, Ford Motor Co. and Stellantis said they were working on making shipping alternatives."

That takes time and money.

Now imagine an enemy nation (China?) or crime organization (drug cartel?) identified 30 "critical bridges" or transportation nodes. The I-10 Mississippi River bridge at Baton Rouge is one example. The disruption caused by the detonation of 30 one-ton bombs hidden in trucks near or on the targets would cause immense devastation and economic destruction. It could also kill thousands.

America's transport and logistics chain is vulnerable.

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To find out more about Austin Bay and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.


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