By Dave Scrivener, Senior Executive Producer, MotorWeek
Alexander Kellum, Assistant Writer, MotorWeek


Since the cargo vessel Dali lost power, struck, and collapsed Baltimore’s Francis Scott Key Bridge during the early hours of March 26, import and export activities at the Port of Baltimore have been severely disrupted, including the transport of automobiles.

The Port of Baltimore is an active reminder of the region’s rich maritime history, to be sure. But with respect to current-day logistics of automotive shipping and delivery, the port serves as a vital artery, loading and unloading vehicles for national and international distribution. According to a report from Automotive News, more than 800,000 autos and light trucks were handled in 2023, making Baltimore’s the busiest U.S. port for automotive shipping.

“This is a terrible tragedy, and our sympathies go out to those injured and still missing in Baltimore,” said John Bozzella, chief executive officer of the Washington, DC-headquartered Alliance for Automotive Innovation, which represents a number of automakers that utilize the port. “It’s too early to say what impact this incident will have on the auto business, but there will certainly be a disruption. Baltimore is the nation’s No. 1 automobile port, and we’re in touch with federal officials to help them understand the scale of its automotive operations.”

The statistics underscore that scale. The Port of Baltimore is responsible for more than 1,150 direct jobs, according to the Alliance for Automotive Innovation. In 2023, vehicles and related parts accounted for 42% of all port imports, cargo valued at approximately $25 billion. Similar outbound cargo accounted for 27% of all exports, a $6 billion value. In total, approximately 38% of total port trade, $30.6 billion, is attributed to the automotive industry.

The MotorWeek view: How Baltimore’s Key Bridge collapse might impact automotive logistics 6The container ship Dali still covered with debris, along with the remains of the southern span of the Francis Scott Key Bridge, as seen from Anne Arundel County's Fort Smallwood Park, Friday, April 4, 2024. Although conditions have mostly cleared, inclement weather earlier in the week put crews on higher alert. (Photo/Alexander Kellum)

Impact on the brands

Brands operating from the port include Ford, General Motors, Toyota, Mazda, Nissan, Mitsubishi, Mercedes-Benz and BMW, among others. The Volkswagen Group, comprised of Volkswagen, Audi, Bentley and Lamborghini, rely on Baltimore’s port, too.

Of that list, Volkswagen and BMW are the least likely to be impacted as they operate out of Tradepoint Atlantic, the 3,300-acre global logistics center and deepwater terminal, at Sparrows Point, MD, east of the Key Bridge and unblocked from Chesapeake Bay access. Representatives from these brands have stated they expect minimal changes in their schedules, while Tradepoint confirmed that it is equipped to handle additional cargo.

The MotorWeek view: How Baltimore’s Key Bridge collapse might impact automotive logistics 10The Francis Scott Key Bridge was a major part of I-695, looping around Baltimore and serving as a major bypass for local and Mid-Atlantic traffic. The bridge recently removed from Google Maps, showing a beltway disconnected. (Image/Google Maps)

Other ports as options

For those bound for westward terminals, things get a little more complicated. While crews successfully opened temporary shipping channels during the week after the bridge collapse, traffic is limited at the discretion of the Captain of the Port and will likely be reserved for mission-critical and “commercially essential” vessels. And while the Sparrows Point Tradepoint port is a localized option, that site can only take in so much additional traffic. Therefore, additional workarounds are required.

Other ports along the East Coast, including those in Virginia, New York, and New Jersey, are shifting their operations to accommodate incoming supply. These destinations are all located within three-to-five hours of Baltimore, meaning imported vehicles could be offloaded from their carriers and then loaded onto trucks. The Port of Baltimore’s proximity to I-95 helps make trucking a viable option. However, finding an open port terminal at which to dock is only half of an equation, as ports need to be able to accommodate the roll-on/roll-off ships on which imported cars are delivered.

Unlike traditional cargo vessels, which stack containers high on the deck, these ships open below deck so vehicles can roll on and off, giving rise to the “Ro-Ro” colloquialism. In a report published by Forbes, the Port of Brunswick, Georgia, was also a likely destination for unloading vehicles due to its ability to take in these specialized carriers. Jacksonville, Florida, is another viable alternative.

Regardless of which contingency plans are temporarily utilized, local operations will undoubtedly feel the effects for some time.

“It’s going to have an impact,” Ford Motor Company’s John Lawler, chief financial officer, told Bloomberg News. “It’s just at this point, we’ll have to understand what that means for us specifically. We’ll work on the workarounds. We’ll have to divert parts to other ports along the East Coast or elsewhere in the country, and it will probably lengthen the supply chain a bit.”

A Reuters report indicated that Ford has found alternative shipping solutions for the short term, where necessary. General Motors said in a statement that it expects minimal impact on operations, with plans to reroute vehicle shipments to other ports. Stellantis N.V., a multinational automotive manufacturing corporation, lamented the tragedy and discussed its plans for moving forward.

“This is a horrific tragedy and we will keep all those involved, including first responders, in our thoughts,” Stellantis said in a statement, according to Automotive News. “The Port of Baltimore is an important waterway for the automotive industry. We are initiating discussions with our various transportation providers on contingency plans to ensure an uninterrupted flow of vehicles to our customers and will continue to carefully monitor this situation.”

In an interview with CNBC, Dimitris Psillakis, chief executive officer of Mercedes-Benz USA, said that the Port of Baltimore is one of four U.S. distribution centers for the brand. During the interview, published on March 27, Psillakis went on to say it was too early to see the effects, but Mercedes-Benz will do its best to keep the supply moving, using other ports, including Brunswick, to help.

In an address on March 26, President Biden underscored the importance of getting the port reopened. He expects the federal government to pay for the entire cost of reconstruction, he said.

The MotorWeek view: How Baltimore’s Key Bridge collapse might impact automotive logistics 2Shipping operations continue at the Tradepoint Atlantic terminal in Sparrows Point, MD, Friday, April 5, 2024. The Volkswagen Group's regional operations are conducted here, ahead of the collapsed Francis Scott Key Bridge. (Photo/Alexander Kellum)

Salvage underway

While the process of reopening the harbor’s deep-water shipping lanes will take time, salvage operations are well underway under the aegis of the Key Bridge Response 2024 Unified Command. This coalition contains elements of the U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Maryland Department of the Environment, Maryland Transportation Authority, Maryland State Police and Witt O’Brien (a leading risk management and emergency response partner), representing Synergy Marine Group, a leading ship management company.

An April 3 statement by the Unified Command cited inclement weather, including thunderstorms and high winds, as a significant challenge for the salvage crews. Divers on the scene are currently conducting underwater surveys, mapping out future wreckage removal.

“Our operations continue but will be adjusted as necessary in response to any adverse weather conditions,” said U.S. Coast Guard Chief Warrant Officer Frank Schiano, salvage branch director for Key Bridge Response 2024. “The Unified Command remains committed to re-opening the port while ensuring safety and environmental protection.”

We at MotorWeek extend our condolences to everyone impacted by this tragic event, especially the families of those construction workers who perished. MotorWeek originates from Maryland Public Television, and many of us are lifelong Marylanders. The Francis Scott Key Bridge is both a gateway for Baltimore shipping operations and a local landmark, and its disappearance on the horizon has left a void on our city’s skyline and in our hearts.

The Port of Baltimore’s importance to the automotive industry on which our national and international TV program focuses cannot be understated. We, too, acknowledge that the speed of recovery comes second to the safety of crews now at work on behalf of all of us.