Jim Moran is worried about the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.

Like all of us, he sees the tragedy of the Francis Scott Key Bridge disaster — the loss of life, the major disruption to traffic and the gigantic injection of chaos into the local economy.

Moran is a Queen Anne’s County commissioner, though, and his vantage point across the Chesapeake puts the Bay Bridge at the forefront of his “what-ifs.”

What if the massive job of cleaning up the collapse debris, reopening the Helen Delich Bentley Port of Baltimore and constructing a new crossing of the outer harbor delays planning for a new Bay Bridge?

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“It’s a concern,” Moran said. “We don’t want to slow down — whatsoever.”

Worse, what if a container ship were to hit the twin spans crossing between Sandy Point and Kent Island?

Eiffel Tower-size ships pass beneath the bridge a dozen times a day or more as they navigate the channels in and out of Baltimore. In the middle reaches of the Chesapeake, these leviathans move at 20 knots — far faster than the speed the Dali was traveling when it crashed into the Key Bridge on Tuesday.

“What does that do?” Moran said. “I’m not an engineer.”

This is what he plans to tell Bruce Gartner, director of the Maryland Transportation Authority, next week. They’ll meet on Wednesday when the Bay Bridge Reconstruction Advisory Group gathers for its next regular session.

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Delay would be an example of the butterfly effect, a popular expression of chaos mathematics distilled by meteorologist Edward Lorenz. He came up with the elegant illustration of a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil, setting off a chain of consequences that results in a tornado in Texas.

Right now, that’s what we’re all searching for. Journalists, analysts and commissioners from Queen Anne’s County are looking for hidden connections in a complex system — butterflies fluttering away from the wreckage of the Key Bridge.

For every explanation and every worry, though, there is an important caveat — maybe, maybe not.

“As Maryland works to recover and rebuild after this tragedy, I believe that the state will be able to work with our federal partners to rapidly rebuild the Key Bridge,” Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman said in a statement released by his office.

“I do not expect this important work to have an impact on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge project.”

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There’s a kaleidoscope of butterflies hovering over the global supply chain right now. Although Baltimore had just 4% of total East Coast imports, it was the leading U.S. point of entry for cars and work trucks, plywood, aluminum and a whole range of other products, according to S&P Global, a commodities analysis firm.

One of its biggest exports was coal. Not just any coal, but high-energy coking coal from North and Central Appalachian coal fields headed for blast furnaces overseas — and India’s massive brick industry was a major destination.

Last year, 19 million tons were shipped out of the coal piers at both the CSX Curtis Bay and Consol Marine terminals, most of it from mines in Western Pennsylvania, the U.S. Energy Information Administration said Thursday. Those Indian kilns can switch to other fuels but at a cost.

Guess who buys those bricks? Us. The United States is the fourth-largest importer of Indian bricks, according to the Observatory of Economic Complexity.

Builders will be able to get bricks elsewhere, again at a cost. But coalfields in Pennsylvania and West Virginia will have to navigate pricing and rail schedules when considering new ports such as Hampton Roads in Virginia, the EIA said.

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Coal is dying because of its effect on climate change, and if this is a death blow for some producers, you and I might say good news. But people who work there sure won’t, nor the communities buoyed by the money coal pumps into them.

Key Bridge butterflies could have political consequences.

If Gov. Wes Moore does a good job in dealing with his first crisis since taking office, it will burnish his standing with an already appreciative Maryland electorate. But if he stumbles, if the economic and tax revenue fallout from the port closure goes on too long, his popularity and viability as a future presidential candidate would suffer.

Moore is not on the ballot until 2026, but his popularity is. The governor is the most potent political force in Maryland, and the U.S. Senate race will test that clout. Early polling has former Republican Gov. Larry Hogan well ahead of his likely Democratic opponents, Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks and U.S. Rep. David Trone.

Moore alters this dynamic, with the power to drive Democratic turnout and convince independents. A diminished governor might give the race to Hogan, flip control of the Senate to Republicans — and even if President Joe Biden wins reelection, create a roadblock to changing the rightward direction of the U.S. Supreme Court.

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If Roe v. Wade could fall, so can decisions that protect LGBTQ families.

Or, this butterfly could flutter up Hogan’s nose.

Ever Forward — at 1,095 feet, slightly longer than the Dali — grounded in the Chesapeake in 2022 during Hogan’s second term, about a year after its sister ship, Ever Given, did the same in the Suez Canal.

Cell phone use was blamed for the Ever Forward accident. It’s not clear if anyone in the Hogan circle considered this a warning — that maybe ships twice the size they were when the Key and Bay bridges were built present a threat Maryland was unprepared to address.

Or, maybe it’s simpler than that.

“I think the politics of it is we need Democrats in office who are interested in making these big public investments,” said Del. Marc Korman, chair of the House Environment & Transportation Committee.

Korman represents Montgomery County. Another megabridge project, widening the American Legion bridge on the Capital Beltway, waits there in the wings.

The Moore administration reversed Hogan’s course on the project, reapplying for federal funding. But it has yet to announce its plans for the bridge, or the accompanying expansion of the beltway and Interstate 270.

“Does this get set back because of that?” Korman said. “That’s an internal decision.”

The container ship Dali rests against wreckage of the Francis Scott Key Bridge on Wednesday. (Matt Rourke/AP)

A butterfly landing is far more likely at another of the Maryland Department of Transportation’s alphabet roster of agencies, the MTA.

Shedding bus and train service because of a money crunch, the Maryland Transit Administration will be tasked with moving people around the gap created in the Baltimore Beltway for years to come.

“The MTA was already very constrained,” Korman said. “This is just going to add to that.”

Thursday morning, back at the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, seven container ships were anchored in Annapolis Roads, where cargo waits for a pier to open at the Port of Baltimore.

That’s down from 11 on Wednesday. As shipping companies sort out how to reroute their vessels to other ports, this stretch of water should empty out. The monumental bassoon chorus of competing fog horns will fall silent.

Maybe, if reopening the port stretches into months, the horizon might seem bigger this spring.

It’s impossible to know where the Key Bridge butterflies will land. But they don’t all have to be bad.

Rick Hutzell is the Annapolis columnist for The Baltimore Banner. He writes about what's happening today, how we got here and where we're going next. The former editor of Capital Gazette, he led the newspaper to a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the 2018 mass shooting in its newsroom.

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