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For Baltimore-area residents, bridge collapse means longer commutes, uncertain prospects

Francis Scott Key Bridge collapsed after being hit by the Dali container vessel, as seen from Riviera Beach, Md., on Tuesday.
Carol Guzy for NPR
Francis Scott Key Bridge collapsed after being hit by the Dali container vessel, as seen from Riviera Beach, Md., on Tuesday.

For Marylanders like Becky Grimes, who works at an Amazon warehouse near the eastern end of the Francis Scott Key Bridge, the bridge's sudden collapse immediately changed the shape of her day — and many days ahead.

She normally takes the Key Bridge to and from work, but it now takes an extra half hour each way to drive through the city of Baltimore instead of around it.

"I'm not looking forward to it," she says. "There's a lot of people that already want to transfer out."

The collapse of the bridge and the closure of the Port of Baltimore is upending life for countless people in the Chesapeake region.

For many residents, it's the bridge closure that will shake up their daily lives, lengthening commutes and clogging the city's tunnels.

But for the regional economy, the far bigger blow is that the fallen bridge and the container ship Dali are blocking the Port of Baltimore.

A sign warns drivers heading to Baltimore that the Francis Scott Key bridge is closed and to use alternate routes.
/ Laurel Wamsley/NPR
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Laurel Wamsley/NPR
A sign warns drivers heading to Baltimore that the Francis Scott Key bridge is closed and to use alternate routes.

"Because of the port being suspended, we don't have any traffic yesterday, today, at least for the next week or a week and a half," says Brent Howard, president of the Baltimore County Chamber of Commerce. "That's money that we're losing every day because those ships are being redirected to other ports. Norfolk, Newark, Philadelphia are getting that revenue on a daily basis that was already slotted for Baltimore."

And the Key Bridge is a toll bridge that last year generated 7% of the total revenue for the state's transportation authority, according to an analysis by Moody's.

Howard says getting the port and bridge running again is pivotal to the region, both economically and emotionally.

"We're the Chesapeake," he says. "Baltimore is really connected to the port and connected to water and connected to ships and vessels. That's something that's always been intrinsic to Baltimore's history, going back to our inception."

A bustling port, now in limbo

Brenda Cotsairis has seen the area weather its ups and downs. On Tuesday, she joined others at a lookout in Dundalk, Md., where the collapsed bridge was visible.
/ Laurel Wamsley/NPR
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Laurel Wamsley/NPR
Brenda Cotsairis has seen the area weather its ups and downs. On Tuesday, she joined others at a lookout in Dundalk, Md., where the collapsed bridge was visible.

As a little girl in the 1970s, Brenda Cotsairis's father brought her to a sandy beach to see the Key Bridge under construction.

She works at a local grocery store and has seen the area weather its ups and downs.

"For a lot of years, good jobs were gone and then things started to come back," she says. "And now we have Tradepoint Atlantic and we have the port bustling — it's a very, very busy port and it's thriving for Baltimore. And now it's devastated."

Daraius Irani, an economist at Towson University, estimates that the port's closure is costing between $10 million and $15 million a day in lost economic activity. And at least another $1 million a day in state and local taxes won't be collected while the port is closed.

Still, Irani says the port — which last year had its best year ever — should fully rebound. That's in part because Baltimore's port is about a day further inland than many others on the Eastern seaboard, putting it closer to points in the Midwest.

He says if the port remains closed for months, there could be some furloughs, but he doesn't expect layoffs among workers there. And Irani says the bridge's collapse will likely create some jobs.

"You hate to say this, but in any kind of disaster, there's obviously the opportunity for the rebuild. So new construction jobs will likely come up because they need to build a new bridge," he says.

Businesses near the bridge could see fewer customers

The town of Dundalk is among the Maryland communities near the Key Bridge likely to see less traffic while the bridge is down.
/ Laurel Wamsley/NPR
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Laurel Wamsley/NPR
The town of Dundalk is among the Maryland communities near the Key Bridge likely to see less traffic while the bridge is down.

The bridge's absence will almost certainly have a longer impact on the small businesses located near its entrances on either side of the Patapsco River.

Joe Gold is the general manager of Key Brewing, a craft brewery in the town of Dundalk. Like the bridge, the brewery was named after Francis Scott Key, who wrote "The Star-Spangled Banner."

"We're not shut down I mean, it's not like that," Gold said Wednesday. "It's just ... the community is going to have to readjust."

With the Key Bridge closed, the traffic that would have passed by to get on I-695 is now taking alternate routes — routes that don't pass by Key Brewing's taproom.

"When I came to work this morning, past 95 to our office, it was the least amount of traffic that I've ever seen on my commute," Gold says.

He says that's a sign that people aren't coming that direction anymore, at least during their daily commutes.

Is he worried about his business surviving? Not just yet.

"It's still too early," he says. "It's still too fresh to kind of know how deep of an impact this is going to have."

It all depends on how long it takes to clear the port — and rebuild a very long bridge.


For the latest from member station WYPR in Baltimore head to wypr.org

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Laurel Wamsley
Laurel Wamsley is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She reports breaking news for NPR's digital coverage, newscasts, and news magazines, as well as occasional features. She was also the lead reporter for NPR's coverage of the 2019 Women's World Cup in France.