April 2024

For the Key Bridge, It’s Fast Reconstruction or a Long State of Emergency

Michael Bennon

The replacement of the Key Bridge in Baltimore will be no quick fix. The regional – and even national – economic impacts of the collapse will be substantial.

The top priority remains clearing the channel so that the Port of Baltimore can resume partial operations. In that regard, the month saw a small but meaningful victory, when at the end of April, a new temporary channel allowed the first stranded cargo ships at the port to finally bypass the Key Bridge wreckage. At 35 feet deep, the new channel could enable some larger cargo ships to access the port again. The state plans to have the main channel cleared of debris and reopened sometime next month.

But replacing the Key Bridge will be another, more substantial, undertaking altogether. After the collapse, local news station WYPR lamented that the replacement project could take upwards of a decade. The original bridge cost approximately $60 million in 1977, or $316 million today, and took five years to complete. If the very same bridge were built today, under non-emergency conditions, it would undoubtedly take years longer and cost multiples more than the original. Some have argued that by using modern construction and technology, such as modular construction, Maryland could have a replacement bridge up within the year. While that may be technically possible, politically, it’s wishful thinking.

However, if the Key Bridge replacement project does truly take that long, it will be a choice, not a necessity. To be sure, the physical realities of the replacement span required will stretch this “emergency” replacement project over several years at the very least. However, there is much that the state and federal governments could do with policy changes alone to accelerate things. This article discusses a few of them: the state and feds could align incentives around delivering the project quickly, and the state could better apply its emergency powers to eliminate easy roadblocks. The former already looks unlikely, but the state is mulling an innovative approach for the latter.

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