Published date: 04/17/2024

When Baltimore’s Key Bridge collapsed in March of this year following a head-on collision with the container ship Dali, the world was stunned. In the modern era of engineering, how could such a catastrophic event occur?

While the factors involved in the collision were extraordinary, the question remains: How many other bridges across our country are similarly vulnerable? And how can we prevent this scenario from ever playing out again?

Bridge Protections Were in Place

Built in 1977, the Key Bridge was constructed with dolphins around each load-bearing pier, concrete pilings strategically placed to absorb the impact of a potential ship collision and keep the bridge itself out of harm’s way. Fenders were constructed around each pier as well to further protect the bridge. At the time, these safeguards – and all aspects of the bridge’s construction – complied with the nation’s bridge design codes.

Unfortunately, it can be difficult for civil engineers and governing bodies to anticipate and mitigate every risk, and large-scale disasters such as the Key Bridge collapse end up being teaching moments for the industry.

When something of this magnitude goes wrong, a thorough investigation and analysis of what happened must be conducted. That is taking place currently, and it’s reasonable that we might expect new, more stringent bridge design codes to emerge as a result.

Not an Industry First

The Key Bridge incident is one of more than 35 major bridge collapses to have caused fatalities globally since the 1960s. Eerily, just a few short years after the Key Bridge was constructed, a similar bridge collapse occurred in 1980 when a cargo ship struck the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in Tampa, Florida, bringing down the massive structure and taking 35 lives.

Following this incident, bridge design codes were scrutinized and upgraded to ensure better protections against such accidents going forward. In the early 1990s, major changes to these codes were enacted when the International Association for Bridge and Structural Engineering published its Ship Collision with Bridges guide, and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation published the Guide Specification and Commentary For Vessel Collision Design of Highway Bridges. Yet, like many bridges around the world, the Key Bridge was “grandfathered in,” as the updated standards were in place to guide new construction only. Consider also how much larger and heavier cargo ships have become over the years. For example, the ship that brought down the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in 1980 weighed 35,000 tons. The Dali that toppled the Key Bridge in March weighed more than 95,000 tons.

A Wake-Up Call for Legislators

While it only makes sense to inspect and upgrade our nation’s bridges on an ongoing basis, experts remind us that this is easier said than done. According to commentary published in Construction Dive from Ben Schafer, professor of civil and systems engineering at Johns Hopkins University, “Safeguarding a bridge against a major collision with a container ship is not economically feasible.”

Though Maryland had invested in repairing the Key Bridge over time, NPR reports that the dolphins constructed back in the 1970s to withstand a ship collision had not been “substantially changed since they were built.”

Where We Go from Here

Dr. Rachel Sangree, director of undergraduate studies and associate teaching professor for Johns Hopkins University’s department of civil and systems engineering, believes significant changes in the bridge design code are coming, as a result of the Key Bridge collapse. As she reported to the Johns Hopkins News-Letter, not only are dolphins, fenders, and other supports critical, but the spans between these support structures must also be reinforced so they are “strong enough to carry the loads.”

When rebuilt, the new Key Bridge may be very different structurally as well, adds Sangree. “Some experts suggest that a cable-stay bridge may be more likely to be built than the previously constructed continuous-truss bridge because of how it fits with the needs and aesthetics of a modern city.”

Impacts on the Construction Industry

In the wake of this tragedy, we are reminded of the critical role our industry plays in safeguarding our nation’s infrastructure assets and improving the quality of our communities overall.

As awareness for our aging infrastructure grows – and municipalities continue to modernize bridges and other critical assets – our industry can reasonably expect an increase in public works projects. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill passed in 2021 is already clear evidence of this effort to rebuild, and it likely won’t be the last.

However, with this modernization of our infrastructure comes a need to also modernize our sources of construction labor, which one could argue has been aging in much the same way. It’s no secret that the industry has struggled to maintain an adequate labor supply as more and more of our country’s youth seem to gravitate towards white collar careers.

As industry players explore opportunities to get involved in these new projects, it’s important to keep the long-term health of the industry in mind. We must do more to remind our communities that construction is a great pathway to a successful career. Many municipalities and other project owners are already implementing hiring goals to target underrepresented demographics and encourage untapped potential to join the labor pool. It’s also important for contractors to stay on top of these trends as they become more common in public works contracts.


These materials are being issued with the understanding that LCPtracker is not engaged in rendering legal or other professional services and is providing these for informational purposes only. If legal, accounting, or tax expert assistance is required, the services of a competent legal, accounting or tax professional should be sought.

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