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With an eye on speed, Maryland seeks private team to rebuild Key Bridge

People gathered at Fort Armistead Park in September 2021 watch as a ship passes under the Key Bridge.

Posted on June 3, 2024

Maryland officials made a broad appeal to private industry Friday to help it design and build a replacement for the fallen Key Bridge — and open it no later than Oct. 15, 2028.

Officials outlined the expectations and size of the task in an announcement soliciting businesses across the globe to submit proposals to take on the job.

“Design and construct a visually attractive structure that minimizes the number of piers in the Patapsco River and serves as the gateway to Baltimore City and Port of Baltimore,” according to the request for proposals from the Maryland Transportation Authority.

But unlike with similar requests in less tumultuous times, Maryland officials are not offering all the typical details that might accompany such a solicitation. They will leave a lot of that planning to interested firms.

“We’ve had eight weeks,” said Maryland Transportation Secretary Paul J. Wiedefeld in an interview. “We are committed to getting this bridge rebuilt as quickly, safely and efficiently as we can. We’re not going to settle until we have that thing built.”

It’s been two months since a cargo ship lost power and destroyed the span, killing six workers. Building a new bridge will be vital after the collapse dramatically congested local commutes, stalled parts of the regional economy and impacted the global supply chain.

Among the requirements described in the request is one reflecting a new, post-disaster focus on protecting U.S. bridges. Firms seeking the job must have a “Vessel Collision Protection Design Manager” as part of their bid, with at least 10 years of experience analyzing and designing bridge protection systems.

The Key Bridge opened in 1977, before federal specifications for protecting bridges against vessel strikes were first put in place, in 1994. The Singapore-flagged Dali easily slipped past an existing concrete barrier.

The work to get a team in place for the vast effort to plan, design, engineer and eventually build a new bridge comes as Maryland’s congressional delegation and top state officials continue their push to turn President Biden’s promise of funding 100 percent of rebuilding costs into federal legislation guaranteeing that money.

President Biden and Maryland Gov. Wes Moore (D) at the Maryland Transportation Authority in April.

Gov. Wes Moore (D), who met with Biden at the White House on Tuesday to discuss the federal response, says that certainty is critical for speeding delivery of a vital piece of U.S. infrastructure.

As for what the new bridge might look like, that will depend on which contractors are selected, what designs they come up with and what officials ultimately decide they want.

A top Maryland official said in early May that the new bridge would be designed as a “cable-stayed” span, in which the bridge deck is held up by cables connected to towers that can be placed further apart to help create a bigger buffer for passing ships. But officials at the transportation authority have since said they want to leave that up to the designers, so they will consider other types of bridges as well.

“The exact nature of the structure has not been determined,” the authority said in materials provided to hundreds of potential contractors from around the world, adding that it will work with the firms it chooses “to meet the goals of constructability, aesthetics, and cost.”

In early May, Wiedefeld said initial estimates for the job range from $1.7 billion to $1.9 billion, based on the state’s recent history and work on bridges of a similar scale and complexity around the country. That would eventually be offset by hundreds of millions of dollars in payments from insurers.

Some Republicans in Congress have voiced skepticism about covering the full costs now. Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.), chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said at a recent hearing that he wants a “very firm estimate before we take any further action on the cost-sharing.” At a briefing last week, Moore said “bipartisan momentum and bipartisan cooperation is not a talking point to us. It’s a necessity.”

Tugboats escort the cargo ship Dali after it was refloated May 20.

Maryland officials said developing finely tuned cost proposals will be a key feature of the work to be done by the group of contractors it selects.

Federal officials and outside engineering experts have said the United States must act to reduce the risks that ever-larger ships pose to aging and little-protected bridges. The Coast Guard has launched an inquiry to assess the risk management tools it uses to keep port operations safe.

Engineering experts at Johns Hopkins University on Wednesday said they had begun an urgent assessment of bridges near major ports. They said they will use shipping data and develop risk models to try to figure out which spans are most vulnerable and what infrastructure investments might be needed, with initial results by the end of the summer.

Hopkins bridge expert Rachel Sangree said many bridges “simply weren’t built to withstand the pressures of today’s maritime landscape,” given the sharp rise in ship size and frequency.

After tugboats moved the Dali back to port on May 20 — leaving the “beautiful sight” of a Patapsco River free of the damaged container ship — Moore said his focus is on re-creating one of the core transportation arteries connecting Baltimore and its port to the rest of the country.

“I will not be satisfied until I can look over the same site and see the Francis Scott Key Bridge standing again,” Moore said.

In the meantime, there will be extra commuting pain. The transportation authority’s executive director, Bruce Gartner, said recently that some commuters are seeing increased travel times of 20 to 30 minutes during peak periods.

“As we make our new way together, let’s leave a little earlier than usual, be patient, and be kind, for everyone’s peace of mind and safety,” Gartner said in a message to the authority’s toll-paying customers.

State and federal officials are pushing to fully reopen the federal shipping channel that was initially blocked by the bridge’s collapse, where the smooth flow of massive car-carrying vessels and other ships is important for the local economy and the nation’s global trade.

The Coast Guard said the plan to fully reopen the channel by the end of May has been slightly delayed. Disaster recovery crews are now targeting June 8-10 for reopening the full 700-foot-wide, 50-foot-deep channel, it said.

After clearing the Dali, divers and engineers surveyed the wreckage stuck in the river bed. Workers must dig out a massive chunk of the bridge and cut it into three sections before hauling them up and out of the water, authorities said. The added time reflects “the complexity of the cutting and rigging required to lift portions of the large span,” as well as safety measures and the possibility of bad weather.


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