It took construction crews roughly five years to build the steel, continuous truss structure that carried cars and trucks across the Patapsco River for 47 years. The Francis Scott Key Bridge, a defining piece of Baltimore infrastructure, crumbled in a matter of seconds.

How long will it take to rebuild?

“This is going to be a long-term build. It’s gonna be a build that’s going to require every facet and every aspect of our society,” Gov. Wes Moore at a news conference Tuesday morning.

Crews work to complete the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore prior to its 1977 opening. (Courtesy: Maryland Transportation Authority)

President Joe Biden pledged later in the day that the federal government would likely foot the bill to do so.

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“The Francis Scott Key Bridge is vital to our economy, and it’s vital to our quality of life,” Biden posted on the social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter. “That’s why I’ve directed my team to work with Maryland and move heaven and earth to reopen the port and rebuild the bridge as soon as humanly possible.”

“The people of Baltimore can count on us to stick with them every step of the way,” he said in a separate tweet.

A temporary structure could theoretically be in place in a matter of months if officials chose to pursue it, said Mehdi Setareh, a structural engineer and founder of Virginia Tech’s Vibration Testing Laboratory. The Army Corps of Engineers, which is currently in Baltimore assisting with clearing the debris from the collapsed bridge, has the capacity to mobilize quickly, he said.

But a temporary structure would likely need to be too large to be feasible, Setareh added. The longer the span of bridge between supports, the deeper those supports need to go, and the more complex the temporary fix gets, Setareh said. The largest span between supports on the original Key Bridge was 1,200 feet, towering more than 18 stories in the air in a curved arch to allow for the passage of massive cargo ships like the Dali, which struck and took it down Tuesday morning.

“That kind of depth … is a big challenge,” Setareh said.

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A more realistic approach, Setareh said, would be to streamline a permanent solution by building off the lead-up sections of the bridge that remain — doing so would mean a significantly shorter timeline than the original five years it took to erect the Key Bridge in the 1970s.

Whether officials choose to do so or pursue an entirely new bridge of a different type, they need to consider factors that will change decades into the future, said Mehdi Shokouhian, an engineering professor at Morgan State University. That could mean building the bridge higher to accommodate taller cargo and reinforcing bridge support structures to protect from collisions with cargo ships that are much larger than when the bridge was first built across the Patapsco River.

“We have to be very careful in terms of considering that clearance for future bridges — due to height, due to climate change and sea level rise,” Shokouhian said.

A view of the collapsed Francis Scott Key Bridge wreckage from Authority Drive in Dundalk on March 27, 2024. The bridge collapsed early Tuesday when a cargo ship hit it. (Jessica Gallagher/The Baltimore Banner)

Previous reconstruction efforts of collapsed bridges and roadways offer fodder for speculating on how long a rebuild could take — but differences like size and impact to local transportation networks mean vastly different timelines.

Rebuilding an elevated section of Interstate 95 outside Philadelphia that collapsed last summer took only a couple of weeks. Crews worked around the clock to open an interim six-lane roadway to serve motorists during construction of a permanent bridge.

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In 1993, it took Alabama just months to rebuild a rail bridge following the tragic derailment of an Amtrak passenger train. A container ship trying to pass underneath the bridge struck it, leaving a kink in the bridge surface railway and resulting in the crash that killed 47 people.

“There’s no exact precedent for this,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said on NPR’s “Morning Edition” on Wednesday in response to a question about the timeline for rebuilding the Key Bridge. Buttigieg referenced the August 2007 collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge over the Mississippi River near downtown Minneapolis.

The replacement bridge opened to the public in September 2008 — about 14 months after the collapse — after an ambitious sprint by federal and state officials. A quick, all-hands-on-deck response from state lawmakers and the federal government contributed to the accelerated timeline.

Three days after the tragedy, Congress authorized a $250 million disbursement to help with the rebuild, according to the Minnesota Legislative Reference Library. State lawmakers also held a one-day special legislative session and passed legislation appropriating $2 million in matching funds and giving the transportation commissioner authority over more than $50 million in federal aid, according to a copy of the statute.

Then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty issued a “peacetime emergency” the day after the collapse, which authorized a swift response from state agencies. President George W. Bush declared an emergency a few weeks later, clearing the way for an influx of federal relief and recovery assistance.

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The Minnesota Department of Transportation received bids from four companies seeking to remake the bridge and awarded the contract within a month. Construction began in November 2007.

Still, it’s not a perfect comparison. “It’s too soon to know how similar or how different the engineering challenges are going to be,” Buttigieg added.

More expansive bridge projects can take a decade or more. It took 13 years to replace the aging Woodrow Wilson Bridge over the Potomac River with two six-lane spans and to rebuild four interchanges, The Washington Post reported. The $2.4 billion project, which was completed in 2013, doubled the capacity of the bridge linking Maryland and Virginia.

Experts said that federal, state and local officials will need to take a wide-angle view in approaching the rebuild.

“We have to look at everything as a system,” said Nii O. Attoh-Okine, chair of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Maryland. That means being cognizant of increased commuter traffic demands on the Interstate 95 and Interstate 895 tunnels, rerouting trucks containing hazardous materials and assessing impacts on the Port of Baltimore’s shipping channels.

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“We can’t wait for that bridge work to be complete to see that channel reopen,” Buttigieg said Wednesday morning. “There are vessels that are stuck inside right now and there’s an enormous amount of traffic that goes through there that’s really important to the entire economy.”

Maryland Transportation Secretary Paul Wiedefeld said at a news conference Wednesday evening that state officials had applied earlier that day for available federal funds to reconstruct the bridge.

“We intend to receive some additional federal dollars very quickly to start that process,” he said. “And then we will come up with a design for the replacement of that bridge as quickly as possible to get the port back up and the community back up and running.”

U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, said the state “will also need the help of Congress.”

“Senator (Chris) Van Hollen and I will be working with our entire congressional delegation to make sure that we provide the necessary authorization, support and resources to make this recovery complete so that we can move as quickly as possible, make no mistake about it,” Cardin said.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg prepares to give an update to reporters at a news conference in Dundalk after a cargo ship crashed into the Francis Scott Key Bridge early Tuesday, March 26, 2024, causing the bridge to collapse onto the ship and into the Patapsco River. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

Ben Schafer, a structural engineer and professor at the Johns Hopkins University, said that while it is still speculative to estimate a timeline, it would likely take “weeks and months” just to remove the debris and reopen the shipping channel.

Said Schafer: “It’s years to not just rebuild a bridge, but to actually recreate that whole transportation network and make a decision of what to do.”

Given that the entire country relies on shipping that passes through the Port of Baltimore and the vital link that the Key Bridge provided in the road network, Buttigieg said he it is essential that the project not get bogged down in political infighting.

“Were going to be appealing to members of both parties” for funding in addition to marshaling federal resources at hand, he said.

A similar, “all hands” mobilization effort to what transpired in Minnesota could be coming. Though Attoh-Okine doubts it will again take five years to rebuild the Key Bridge, he said that “it will take some time to get it right.”

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