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Bridge Safety Amidst Rising Container Ship Sizes

Media Coverage
April 8, 2024
Bridge Safety Amidst Rising Container Ship Sizes

Focus On Bridge Safety – Ship Size In New York Waterways After Baltimore Collapse, an article by Lorena Mongelli.

Since the Francis Scott Key bridge collapsed in Baltimore after a nearly 1000-foot-long ship lost power and crashed into pillar last month, engineering experts have raised questions about whether seaport operations and bridge safety have kept up with increasing size of container ships.


Article Continued

Cargo ships heading to terminals at the Port of New York and New Jersey, the third busiest in the nation, travel across the Atlantic and under two main spans: the Verrazzano-Narrows and Bayonne Bridges. Safeguards, including rock islands and “fender systems,” are intended to prevent vessels from striking bridges. In addition, the abutments that support the Bayonne Bridge are outside the navigational channel and container ships would run aground before coming in contact with them, according to Port Authority.

Large ships are also guided by tugboats with local pilots at the helm, according to the agency.

But since the Panama Canal expanded in 2016 to facilitate commerce, predominantly from Asia and the west coast of South America, ships have gotten larger to maximize efficiency.

“We have to catch up…to what is actually happening in the real world,” said Maria Lehman, a bridge engineer and past president of the American Society of Civil Engineers.

While the state inspects each of its bridges at least every two years, Lehman emphasized taking a critical look at all the layers of the port operations, including how ships navigate, how fast they cruise and what redundancy systems they have in place.

The 984-feet long Dali ship that struck the Baltimore bridge was escorted by tugboats as it left its berth, but not through the port’s channel and broader Chesapeake Bay. When it lost power, the pilot called an emergency, dropped its anchor and requested tugboat assistance, but it was too late, according to the Associated Press. The ship crashed into one of the bridge’s columns, causing the entire structure to collapse within seconds. Six people working on the bridge died.

In New York, a ship the size of the Dali would be assisted by two local pilots and at least four tugboats, according to Port Authority officials. The authority also routinely trains for emergency scenarios.

“We hold our crossings to the highest safety standards with industry-leading protection systems in place,” Port Authority spokesperson Steve Burns said in an email. He added that only smaller vessels are one-third the tonnage of the Dali and 400 feet shorter pass under the Outerbridge Crossing, Goethals or George Washington bridges.

While several engineers said it’s questionable whether any bridge is built to withstand the impact of a larger cargo ship, there are several measures intended to stop ships from doing so in local waterways.

“It is difficult to design a bridge to take impact load from such a large mass of a ship,” said Magued Islander, professor and chair of New York University’s Civil & Urban Engineering Department. Iskander said modern bridges are designed to withstand such events such as earthquakes and high winds.

Engineers said options for pier protection include having a raised sea floor and “fender systems,” which are protective structures constructed around piers. According to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge, which sees big container ship traffic, has a rock island around the tower bases.

Bridges in the region also benefit from piers and towers built closer to shore or on land.

At the George Washington Bridge, for example, the New York tower is on land, and the New Jersey tower is outside of the navigational channel and has a fender system.


“The bar keeps getting set higher and higher for the size of the vessels,” said Dennis O’Heney, a technical specialist at McLaren Engineering group, whose firm installed fender systems around the Whitestone Bridge during roughly the last year.

He said in the past five to 10 years, bridges have gotten renewed attention.

“Some of the infrastructure has been aging and the focus has been put on increasing those protections and revamping what we’ve got,” O’Heney said.

Raising Bridges, Deeping Channels

Other changes have been made to handle larger ships, such as raising the height of the roadway span of the Bayonne Bridge in 2019 for a clearance of 215 feet. That allows cargo ships with up to 18.00 shipping containers to travel to port terminals on Staten Island and in Elizabeth and Newark, New Jersey. The channels also were deepened to 50 feet in 2016 to allow for ships with larger drafts – of the depth of the hull. But the dredging was not designed larger ships, according to a 2022 Army Corps of Engineers report.

“These larger vessels have a greater risk of grounding, collision” or accident, the report states, and have restrictions within the harbor.

At one location through Newark Bay Channel, the limitations have caused “difficulties and near misses,” the report states. The Army Corps of Engineers declined to comment.

“Last year, 52% of the container ships that called on the port were larger than the vessels the channels were designed for, Bethann Rooney, port director at the Port Authority, said during a board meeting in December at which the agency approved a cost-sharing agreement of $23 million with the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers to conduct preliminary work to deepen the harbor and do a further study.

25 Smaller Strikes Since 2000

While a crash of the magnitude in Baltimore is rare, it’s not unheard of for vessels to strike bridges, even in New York, where since 202 the state Department of Transportation disclosed there have been 25 maritime bridge strikes.

Only six collisions involving vessels and bridges made headlines since that period, according to a review of news reports. One in 2008 was fatal, involving a recreational boat that slammed into a pillar of the Robert Moses Causeway Bridge.

“Bridges are known colloquially as obstructions to navigation, because navigation has neem the paramount right since before bridges were built,” said maritime lawyer James Mercante, president of the Board of Commissioners of Pilots of the State of New York, which trains, regulates and licenses state pilots.

Mercante said the Baltimore tragedy is sure to be raised during the next Harbor Safety, Navigation and Operations Committee, which includes key maritime industry groups and regulatory agencies such and Port Authority and the Coast Guard.

“Of Course, they’re going to be studying this, lessons learned,” said Mercante.