If you drive a foreign car, there’s a decent chance it went through the Port of Baltimore. The busy port handles more cars than any other port in the country, according to figures released by the state last month.

But with the harbor blocked after the Francis Scott Key Bridge collapsed on Tuesday, the auto industry is expecting extra delays, and the Baltimore region may economically struggle as manufacturers reroute car shipments to other ports, experts say. Officials have not said when they expect the channel to reopen to the ships that brought nearly 850,000 cars and light trucks to the port last year.

Peter Kitzmiller, the president of the trade group Maryland Automobile Dealers Association, said the bridge collapse could have unprecedented impact on the international shipping logistics for new cars. And even if the debris from the crash is cleaned and cleared quickly, and the channel to the port is open soon, “traffic will be dramatically worse without the bridge,” he said. “A lot of things that are uncertain.”

John Bozzella, the president and CEO of the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, which represents car manufacturers, agreed it’s too early to say exactly what impact the closure will have on the industry. “But there will certainly be a disruption,” he said in a statement.

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Kitzmiller said that foreign manufacturers are looking at other U.S. ports that may be able to handle influxes of cars. More than a dozen other ports have the same capability as Baltimore to accommodate “roll-on/roll-off” ships, where imported cars are driven on and off, instead of being packed and unpacked by cranes. Wilmington, Delaware; Charleston, South Carolina; and Boston are among them, according to Ports America.

Trucks will likely intercept cargo such as new cars that would have been received in Baltimore and ports throughout the Northeast, and drive the final leg to Maryland. That means traffic congestion is likely to get pick up — especially because the bridge is no longer accessible.

“We’re talking thousands and thousands of trucks using this I-95 to bypass the collapsed bridge. That demand is not going anywhere,” said Sharat Ganapati, an assistant professor at Georgetown University who studies international trade.

Companies learned the importance of resilience and flexibility in their logistics chain during the pandemic, he said. “What’s going to happen is, a manufacturer will call their transporter and say, ‘Can we reroute to New York?’”

That means, he said, the question isn’t whether the U.S. port system is resilient enough to temporarily operate without Baltimore, but: “Is Baltimore resilient enough to survive without the port?”

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The port generates about 15,300 direct jobs, with nearly 140,000 jobs linked to port, according to state figures. Ganapati said that local port workers may be able to assist in loading the contents of shipment containers currently trapped inside the port into trucks or trains. But if the port stays closed for months, opportunities for work may dry up.

Kitzmiller said it’s difficult to say whether one car make or model will be particularly impacted by the port’s partial closure because nearly every automobile manufacturer utilizes Baltimore.

The port is a “vital part of Mazda’s logistics chain in the United States,” said company spokesman Josh Sheppard. The Japanese manufacturer is currently assessing the potential impacts of a prolonged port closure and has not yet finalized alternative plans, he said.

Jodi Tinson is the head of communications for Stellantis, which is home to Jeep, Chrysler, Dodge and other makes of cars. In a statement, she called the port “an important waterway for the automotive industry” and said the company is initiating discussions with transportation providers “to ensure an uninterrupted flow of vehicles” to customers.

But auto companies that have relationships with Tradepoint Atlantic in Sparrows Point may be in good shape.

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Tradepoint Atlantic, which operates a port access point outside of the Francis Scott Key Bridge, remains open. On Wednesday, the company announced that its global logistics center has increased communications with shipping companies and plans to accept additional vessel traffic.

The Wolfsburg, a regularly scheduled roll-on/roll-off vessel chartered by Volkswagen, docked at Tradepoint Atlantic early Wednesday. The terminal is also home to a processing facility for BMW.

“Our primary focus is providing the facilities needed to expedite channel clearing efforts so that the Port of Baltimore can resume normal commercial activities,” said Kerry Doyle, Tradepoint Atlantic’s managing director.

Correction: This article has been updated to correct Sharat Ganapati's title and the spelling of his last name.

Emily Sullivan covers Baltimore City Hall. She joined the Banner after three years at WYPR, where she won multiple awards for her radio stories on city politics and culture. She previously reported for NPR’s national airwaves, focusing on business news and breaking news.

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