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Infrastructure Outlook: A Better Road Ahead for Baltimore Harbor Traffic

Edward McSpedon on May 20, 2024 - in Articles, Column

 

Peter Vanderzee

Despite unforeseen complexities related to recovery of those who perished and complex entanglement of the collapsed structure with the ship that caused the Francis Scott Key (FSK) bridge collapse, transportation officials in Maryland now expect to be able to reopen the Baltimore Harbor Channel to commercial ship traffic this coming week, less than two months after the maritime disaster that destroyed the main span of the FSK Bridge.  While this is good news, the biggest challenge still lies ahead.    

On May 7, 2024, the Maryland Transportation Authority (MDTA) announced plans for addressing the damaged bridge. Their plan was “music to the ears” for the engineering and construction industry because MDTA intends to spend close to $2 billion dollars for the design and construction of a completely new replacement bridge. Infrastructure builders were also especially heartened by the fact that the bridge building team will be selected quickly using a subjective process that will not require them to commit to a competitive price or even a firm schedule for replacing the bridge.  Instead, the state will reimburse the selected team for their engineering and estimating costs, plus profit, over many months, to arrive at an acceptable negotiated price and schedule for building the new bridge.

While this plan was great news for the contractors, it was bad news for commuters, truckers and other motorists who travel the major highways and secondary roads into and near the Port of Baltimore. It was also bad news for businesses who rely on timely ground shipment of goods to and from the Port or for consumers who depend upon goods and services provided by those businesses.  And it was especially bad news for taxpayers. 

The new bridge plan will not offer substantial congestion relief to the current torturous daily plight of Harbor Area travelers and their stakeholders until fall of 2028 when the new bridge is estimated (in our view unlikely) to be completed.  To minimize aggravation from this multi-year schedule, MDTA proposes to develop and implement whatever limited congestion mitigation measures may be possible to reduce the traffic pain in and around the Port area.  Some of the plans being considered include reconfiguring traffic flow at the Ft. McHenry Tunnel Toll Plaza and diverting some trucks to a ramp near the north side of the harbor. 

What MDTA has apparently overlooked is the most effective congestion mitigation measure of them all: an accelerated repair and reopening of the FSK Bridge as a temporary bypass until a new replacement bridge is in operation.

This is especially significant because the repair of the existing bridge can be completed and opened to traffic in a fraction of the estimated time to build a new bridge and at a reasonable cost.  How, you wonder, is that possible?

  • The much smaller scope, cost and the schedule of a repair can be determined with far greater accuracy and confidence (less risk) than current estimates for an entirely new bridge whose characteristics have yet to be defined.
  • If the repaired structure were treated as a “Temporary FSK Bypass,” there would be other cost savings as well (e.g., no architectural lighting, no regular painting, minimal to no need for extensive engineering designs (perhaps using prior as-builts), environmental approvals, permits or design reviews by outside agencies).
  • Additionally, the FSK Bypass would be able to more rapidly generate new toll revenues that can help to offset construction costs.
  • Sections of the original truss design can be constructed in a modular fashion, offsite, then barged to the Harbor and lifted into place, significantly reducing construction time.
  • The repair contractor can be selected by “competitive low-bid” with a “hard completion schedule” and an allowance for necessary investigations and testing of those sections (e.g., approaches of the bridge that were not destroyed by the ship strike).

Importantly, this MDTA bridge replacement plan comes with bad news for federal and local taxpayers who will pay $2 billon or more for a newly designed bridge, compared to several hundred million for a repair (The Washington Post estimated the complete “replacement in-kind” of the entire FSK bridge (not just the damaged center span) would cost $316 million in current dollars).

Because we see no significant temporary solution to traffic mitigation, the MDTA put itself under intense time pressure to complete the new bridge as quickly as possible. This will make it difficult to terminate the selected contractor to ensure timely competition if a fair negotiated construction price and/or a fixed completion date cannot be agreed upon.  Undefined project objectives most often affect the taxpayer-owners, not contractors. 

Hoped-for expedited design reviews and permit approvals by other agencies, who are not contractually committed to the rapid MDTA schedule, will have exaggerated negative financial and schedule impact on the construction cost of the new bridge because the contractor will have an oversized level of staff and equipment mobilized onsite to meet MDTA’s very aggressive completion schedule.  These and related factors will increase the likelihood of design and construction errors, construction cost increases and schedule delays.  Also, requiring long-term overtime to recover likely schedule delays is always expensive and inefficient.

In addition, to avoid extensive delays in the environmental clearance process for the new bridge, MDTA has apparently committed to limiting the footprint of the new bridge by building it in exactly the same location as the original FSK bridge.  This limitation will likely rule out more cost-effective design options for a new bridge.

Assuming an FSK repair scheme with its resultant accelerated traffic congestion solution underway, the MDTA could proceed at an orderly pace with the design, approval and construction of an optimal, more cost effective, resilient, efficient to maintain, and aesthetically pleasing long-term bridge solution for the Baltimore Harbor.

The repair work itself would not delay the construction of a new replacement bridge and any delays to completion of the new bridge that might occur would not impose congestion impacts to area traffic.  Finally, more years of toll revenue from the repaired bridge (due to its rapid reopening) will provide hundreds of millions of dollars that can be used to substantially defray costs of the repaired bridge.

Dealing with an unexpected disaster—such as occurred on March 26, 2024—creates a very complicated “decision tree.”  Action is required quickly and one of the obvious considerations is the risk of losing federal support if construction of a new bridge doesn’t commence right away.  Any lingering concern about the risk of collision in the future can be mitigated by operating the FSK Bypass as a “Virtual Draw Bridge,” stopping traffic when ships pass underneath. 

Importantly, the letter “T” in MDTA, MDOT and USDOT stands for transportation (i.e., mobility).  It can also refer to who pays for this mobility—the taxpayers—who deserve consideration on how to implement this project. Right now, the Baltimore region is suffering from a very severe reduction in mobility.  We appreciate the MDTA’s challenges, yet it seems to us that the most effective forward plan would seek to recover mobility loss as quickly and cost-effectively as possible, simultaneously advancing a well-thought-out and carefully managed “Next-Gen” Baltimore Harbor crossing solution without applying self-imposed, expensive time pressure.

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About Edward McSpedon

Edward McSpedon is CEO of Infrastructure Delivery Strategies, LLC; and Peter Vanderzee is president and CEO of LifeSpan Technologies.

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