John Hopkins Engineers Begin Assessing US Bridges Near Ports

The collapsed Francis Scott Key bridge in Baltimore
Updated Published

The US National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB), investigating the collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge, has called on bridge owners across the country to take immediate measures to protect their structures from similar incidents.

Engineers from Johns Hopkins University, along with a group of students, are conducting an urgent evaluation of bridges nationwide, focusing particularly on those near major ports of entry.

On March 26, the container vessel Dali lost power and collided with the bridge, completely demolishing it and resulting in the deaths of six construction workers.

Since the incident, authorities have been working to clear the blocked shipping channel and begin reconstruction of the bridge, which is expected to be completed by 2028. However, other bridges may also be at risk.

Large vessels, often weighing over 100,000 tons, regularly pass under bridges on their way to US ports. While thousands of ships have navigated under the Key Bridge without incident, the Dali's loss of power at a critical moment led to the bridge's collapse.

Engineers from Johns Hopkins hypothesize that the risk of such incidents has been "underestimated" and that the likelihood of similar events is higher than currently assumed, according to a news release.

Michael Shields, the Hopkins engineer leading the assessment, emphasized the urgency of identifying any excessive risks to the nation's bridges now, rather than in the distant future, so that necessary investments, which could take years, can begin immediately if needed.

The Key Bridge disaster has served as a wake-up call.

The engineers and students will evaluate the probability of a cargo vessel like the Dali deviating from its course and striking the Key Bridge, as well as the chances of such collisions occurring at other critical bridges.

A National Science Foundation Rapid Response Research grant will support this study, which will take a year to complete, though preliminary results are expected this summer.

When the Francis Scott Key Bridge was designed and constructed in the 1970s, the US bridge code, developed by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, did not include guidelines for preventing vessel collisions. These specifications were added in the 1990s, but existing bridges like the Key and Bay Bridges were not required to be retrofitted to meet the new standards.

Last week, experts convened at College Park for a roundtable hosted by the American Society of Civil Engineers and the University of Maryland's engineering department. Some participants suggested that the bridge code could be revised in light of the Key Bridge collapse.

The Hopkins study may influence potential changes to these safety standards.

In a statement, Hopkins engineer Ben Schafer noted that the group's findings will be crucial in reassessing and redefining transportation infrastructure safety standards.