Engineers at the Johns Hopkins University are conducting an “urgent assessment” of bridges across the United States in the wake of the Key Bridge collapse, believing the risk for another ship strike to be higher than previously thought.

The team, currently made up of three Hopkins staff and a small group of students, including one from Morgan State University, will use global shipping data to modernize what engineers believe are outdated risk assessment models. Focusing on bridges close to major U.S. ports, they will use the models to assess how likely it is that a ship might veer off course and ram into a bridge, as the container ship Dali did when it hit the Francis Scott Key Bridge after leaving the Port of Baltimore early on the morning of March 26.

“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,” said Michael Shields, a Johns Hopkins engineer specializing in risk assessment and leading the team, according to a news release from Hopkins. “The Key Bridge collapse was a wake-up call.”

The support pier that would be struck and end up bringing down the Key Bridge, as photographed on Aug. 19, 2023 by amateur ship photographer and plumber-by-day, David Sites. (David Sites)

Since the March disaster — which claimed the lives of six construction workers, temporarily shuttered the port and thrust Baltimore into the international spotlight — officials, engineers, everyday citizens and even conspiracy theorists have questioned why it happened and what could have prevented it. Now Hopkins is throwing some weight behind the effort.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

In the immediate aftermath of the Key Bridge’s collapse, engineers speculated whether stronger bridge protections in the form of concrete “dolphins” or pier fendering systems could have staved off the strike from the Dali. Small concrete dolphins were positioned near the bridge in the Patapsco River as a way to try and steer wayward ships back into the main shipping channel, but the 984-foot, 95,000-gross-ton Dali drifted around them after it lost power and struck one of the bridge’s supports.

Some engineers consider beefing up such protection systems to be too costly given a “one-in-a-million” level risk. Others believe they are more critical than ever. The Delaware Memorial Bridge, for example, is undergoing a roughly $93 million project that will bolster its own pier protections.

“Preliminary findings already challenge prevailing assumptions,” said team member Rachel Sangree, a structural engineer and former bridge inspector, according to the release. “The U.S. has seen 17 incidents of major bridge collapse between 1960 and 2011, averaging one every three years. Between the exponential growth of mega freight ships and the surge in global shipping traffic, many of our bridges simply weren’t built to withstand the pressures of today’s maritime landscape.”

President Joe Biden visits the site of the Francis Scott Key Bridge collapse on April 5, 2024. He vowed to rebuild the bridge at a press conference with Gov. Wes Moore (right) and other state, federal and local officials. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

Maryland officials predict that it could cost nearly $2 billion and take until late 2028 to replace the Key Bridge.

The Hopkins team came together with the help of a $200,000 National Science Foundation Rapid Response Research grant and hopes to have preliminary results this summer. The team estimates it will take a year to finalize its findings and hopes they will prove useful for state and federal officials in determining infrastructure funding.

“Clearly the risk to the Key Bridge was very different in 2024 than it was in 1977 when the bridge opened,” Shields said. “But we don’t currently understand that risk.”