Mar 27, 2024 - News

What the Baltimore bridge collapse means for Cleveland

The Cleveland skyline over the Port of Cleveland

Photo: Sam Allard/Axios

The city has one of the most active ports on the Great Lakes and a variety of bridges spanning the Cuyahoga River, but a tragedy like the recent bridge collapse in Baltimore is unlikely to happen here, Port of Cleveland officials say.

Why it matters: Roughly 13 million tons of cargo pass through the Cleveland harbor each year.

  • Bulk carriers navigate the infamous hairpin turns of the Cuyahoga to deliver iron ore, coal and limestone to the Cleveland-Cliffs steel plant six miles south.

Catch up quick: A large container ship lost power and crashed into the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore early Tuesday.

Between the lines: Unlike the Francis Scott Key bridge, which spans more than 1,200 feet of open water, the bridges locally are lift and swing bridges manned by trained bridgetenders in communication with the passing vessels.

What they're saying: "The fixed bridges over the Cuyahoga have no supporting infrastructure in the water adjacent to the shipping channel, making it unlikely they could be compromised by a vessel," the Port said in a statement.

  • Plus, given the narrow, winding passageway — what a ship captain in 2016 called "some of the most technically difficult navigation in the world" — the bulk carriers travel at low speeds.

Yes, but: Other threats are more pressing. For years, the Port warned of the risk of a landslide at Irishtown Bend.

Photo from the deck of a Greak Lakes freighter traveling the Cuyahoga River
When the Center Street Swing Bridge opens for passing freighters, there's only about 12 feet of clearance on either side. Photo: Sam Allard/Axios

What's next: While local Port officials have engaged entities in Baltimore to offer assistance, it's too early to say whether shipping traffic could be diverted here to provide relief, Port CEO William Friedman tells Axios.

The big picture: The Port of Baltimore, one of the busiest in the U.S., halted vessel traffic indefinitely following Tuesday's bridge collapse.

  • The stoppage is expected to affect the flow of commerce in the U.S., and it's not yet known how long the port will be closed, Maryland Transportation Secretary Paul J. Wiedefeld told reporters Tuesday.

By the numbers: In 2023, the Port of Baltimore handled a record 52.3 million tons of international cargo.

  • It's the top U.S. handler of imports and exports of cars and light trucks — "roll-on roll-off" cargo, per Friedman — and focuses heavily on container handling.

"Roll-on roll-off cargoes must be redirected to ports equipped with appropriate facilities," Friedman says. "And container transfer to smaller ships poses additional complexities."

  • Friedman says the bulk commodities that Cleveland handles, like iron ore, coal, cement and steel, can be difficult to transfer to smaller vessels suitable for navigation in the St. Lawrence Seaway System.

Yes, but: Cleveland's terminal operator, Logistec USA, has reached out to counterparts in Baltimore and is exploring ways to assist.

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