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Navy should take the lead to protect local waterways in light of Baltimore bridge disaster, ODU professor says

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers staff observe the wreckage of the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore. March 26, 2024. Department of Defense.
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers staff observe the wreckage of the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore. March 26, 2024. Department of Defense.

The Navy should use its influence with local and state transportation officials to call for a review of the bridge system in Hampton Roads after the collision and collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore last week, said Professor Zia Razzaq, who teaches civil engineering at Old Dominion University. 

The disaster highlights a need for additional safety measures that could prevent a similar accident from stopping the flow of goods in the area, Razzaq said.

The Navy’s desire to keep shipping lanes open has shaped Hampton Roads. It is one of the reasons that the area has a system of tunnels rather than bridges, he said.

“What if one of those links is destroyed at the wrong time? During wartime, it would be extremely bad news,” he said. “The other thing is some of these bridges in the Tidewater area are crucial links from north to south for transportation.”

The Navy feared sabotage could trap an aircraft carrier or cargo ships carrying military supplies. It fueled their opposition to building bridges over major shipping channels in the 1950s and 1960s. 

While Baltimore is not a major military hub, the collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge cut off at least two Navy cargo ships from the ocean.

Systems have already been developed to shield bridges with pilons to potentially stop the type of accident that happened in Baltimore. It is a matter of convincing transportation officials that the risk is worth spending the money to retrofit the bridge built decades ago, he said. 

“Honestly, it's not very pricey,” Razzaq said. “They can actually put protective systems, at least on piers associated with the most critical bridges. If they are not made use of for 50 years, then so be it. But there could be one crazy bad day.” 

The cargo ship Dali collided with a bridge pier in Baltimore early Tuesday morning. The impact caused the bridge to tumble into the water, killing six people and blocking the entrance to the harbor. 

A Navy spokesman referred questions about what action will be taken in the aftermath of the bridge collapse to the U.S. Department of Transportation. 

Navy equipment has already arrived in Baltimore to help clear the collapsed bridge, including four large barges and 12 cranes, which will support the U.S. Coast Guard effort to reopen the waterway.

Steve joined WHRO in 2023 to cover military and veterans. Steve has extensive experience covering the military and working in public media, most recently at KPBS in San Diego, WYIN in Gary, Indiana and WBEZ in Chicago. In the early 2000s, he embedded with members of the Indiana National Guard in Kuwait and Iraq. Steve reports for NPR’s American Homefront Project, a national public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Steve is also on the board of Military Reporters & Editors.

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