Prompted by Key Bridge collapse, John Hopkins begins ‘urgent assessment’ of US bridges

BALTIMORE — The National Transportation and Safety Board — the agency investigating the collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge — has encouraged the nation’s bridge owners to act swiftly in protecting their assets from a similar fate.

Johns Hopkins University is also making haste. The school’s engineers, plus a team of students, are beginning an “urgent assessment of the country’s bridges, particularly the larger ones near major ports of entry.”

A massive container ship, named the Dali, lost power March 26 and crashed into the Key Bridge, knocking it down and killing six construction workers. Since then, authorities have rushed to clear the blocked shipping channel and begin the process of designing rebuilding the bridge. It’s slated to be finished by 2028.

But other bridges in could be at risk. Massive ships, often weighing more than 100,000 tons, frequently transit under bridges on their ways to ports in the U.S.

Thousands of ships have transited under the Key Bridge and it took extraordinary circumstances for the Dali to strike one of the bridge’s integral support piers. It lost power at the exact wrong time, precipitating the collapse.

But Hopkins engineers hypothesize that the risk of the Key Bridge disaster was “underestimated” and that the probability of a similar incident is higher than currently presumed, according to a news release.

“We need to know now, not five or 10 years from now, whether there is an outsize risk to bridges across the country so that critical investments — which will take years — can begin immediately if they are needed,” Michael Shields, the Hopkins engineer leading the team, said in a statement. “The Key Bridge collapse was a wake-up call.”

The engineers and students will analyze the probability of a cargo ship the size of the Dali straying from its path and colliding with the Key Bridge and the odds of similar collisions at other bridges.

A National Science Foundation Rapid Response Research grant will help fund the study. It will take one year, but the team expects to share some preliminary findings this summer.

When the Key Bridge was designed and built in the 1970s, the nation’s bridge code — developed by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials — did not have guidelines for preventing vessel collision. Those specifications were added in the 1990s, but existing bridges, like the Key Bridge and the Bay Bridge, were not required to be retrofitted to meet the new standards.

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

The Hopkins study could be relevant to any potential changes considered.

“The team’s findings will be crucial in reassessing and potentially redefining the safety standards for transportation infrastructure,” Hopkins engineer Ben Schafer said in the statement.