a tug boat in front of a large cargo ship

This  harbor pilot boat is approximately 50 feet (15 meters) and is one of the moving pieces in the chess game in which ALL of the pieces move at once

Impact on Colorado and Boulder from the Loss of the Key Bridge in Baltimore

Boulder and Colorado will experience the impact on our supply chain resulting from the very recent collision of a container ship with the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore. Coal, cars, parts, and edible soy will see the impact of the national flow of automobiles from Mercedes to Subaru. The container ship crash into the Francis Scott Key Bridge, known as “Key Bridge” has an impact on Colorado and on the rest of the United States. It is a major port for the import of cars.soy for food, and coal. Guiding these humongous vessels with full loads into the harbor is a complex task requiring the coordination of multiple people and multiple tug boats. The process is directed by the harbor master. It is typical for the helm to be transferred from the ship’s captain to the pilot in large ports everywhere. With a captain based at the harbor assisted by the guiding tug boats the safety of the crew and ship is dramatically increased. Obviously it is not foolproof. While the channel may be open in a matter of months, the re-building of the bridge with a new design might take five to ten years. Until then, drivers will find other ways to get across the inlet. The harbor master has the intimate knowledge of the port required for safe passage and safe docking of these ships. These sea going behemoths are generally in the range of 1000′ 304 meters, OL overall length. At their widest they are referred to as “Panamax” ships, since wider ships would not fit through the original Panama Canal. A new canal parallel to the original canal was completed in 2016, permitting the Panamax vessels to traverse the canal. The ships were designed with the canal width being a primary design consideration. Without that canal passageway, ships would have to travel South around the Cape of Good Hope at the Southern tip of South America; a rather large detour adding considerable time and expense to the voyage. The impact on the supply chain is also expected to be quite significant.

Clues to the potential impact on Colorado can be garnered from a bridge collapse in Pueblo. The collapse of the bridge near Pueblo, Colorado, had significant impacts on the state and specifically on regions like Boulder due to disruptions in transportation and the potential for broader implications on interstate commerce and local economies. On October 15, 2023, a train carrying coal derailed, causing a bridge over I-25 near Pueblo to collapse, This incident led to an indefinite closure of the interstate, a crucial north-south corridor used by 39,000 to 44,000 vehicles daily​​​.​.

Initial investigations by federal authorities identified a broken rail as the cause of the derailment and subsequent bridge collapse. This has prompted further examination into the condition of the track and why warning systems did not alert crews to the potential danger. Built in 1958, the bridge’s collapse and the derailment’s circumstances highlight concerns over rail and bridge safety and the importance of maintenance and monitoring infrastructure. The incident has also led to confusion over the bridge’s ownership between the state and the railroad company, complicating responsibilities for inspection and maintenance​.

Efforts to manage the aftermath included clearing the debris and assessing damage to reopen I-25 to traffic. As of October 19, 2023, both directions of I-25 near Pueblo had reopened, though the investigation and cleanup were ongoing. The closure of this major highway likely disrupted local and interstate commerce, affecting supply chains and transportation routes for individuals and businesses in Colorado, including those in Boulder. Governor Jared Polis stated that despite the derailment, coal delivery to the Comanche Power plant south of Pueblo would continue through alternate routes, indicating attempts to minimize the incident’s impact on power supply in Colorado​.​.

This event underscores the importance of infrastructure maintenance and highlights the interconnectedness of transportation networks in affecting regional economies and daily life. While the immediate impacts involve traffic disruptions and the tragic loss of life, the longer-term effects may include heightened scrutiny on railway and bridge safety, potentially leading to policy changes or investments in infrastructure resilience. For Boulder and other Colorado communities, the incident may prompt considerations for diversifying transportation and supply chain strategies to mitigate the impacts of such disruptions in the future.

a tug boat pulling a large container shipSpecialized tug boats with particularly trained and skilled cap

While the recent crash into the bridge was over in a matter of minutes once the engines failed, heroic and FAST response kept the death toll to six souls instead of many more. The road was closed to traffic almost instantly, saving the cars and occupants from the icy cold waters of the Patapsco River. The pilot’s course appears to have been excellent until the complete loss of power. Then the movement of the ship was “controlled” by the ship’s momentum and the currents. The parabola of the apparently intended course becomes a straight line instead of the continued intended curve. Had the power not been lost it appears that the completed parabola, the course the ship was on before the power loss, would have taken it directly under the center span of the bridge, right where it should have been.

The Francis Scott Key Bridge, commonly referred to as the Key Bridge, is an iconic structure spanning the Patapsco River in Baltimore, Maryland. The channel which serves the harbor runs almost the entire height of the State of Virginia. The container ship which collided with the bridge took out the entire center span of the suspension bridge. The channel will remain impassable to shipping until the wreckage of the bridge can be removed. That might take months Named after Francis Scott Key, the American lawyer, author, and amateur poet who wrote the lyrics for the United States’ national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the bridge serves as a vital artery for transportation and commerce in the Baltimore area. Its construction and operation involve a variety of roles, including harbor masters and tugboat operators, to ensure its safety and efficiency. This essay will delve into the specifics of the bridge, including its dimensions, and the roles of those who manage and navigate its waters.

gray wooden dock on body of water during daytimeNotice how shallow the water is on each side of the channel. Only the center of the bridge has a high enough section for the largest ships to clear the bridge.

The Francis Scott Key Bridge: An Overview

The Key Bridge is part of Interstate 695 and is a major component of the Baltimore Beltway, serving as a bypass for downtown Baltimore. It was opened to traffic in 1977, standing as a testament to modern engineering and design. The bridge is a cantilever type, chosen for its ability to span large distances without the need for numerous support piers in the water, thus minimizing obstructions to navigation in the busy Patapsco River.

Dimensions and Specifications

The Francis Scott Key Bridge boasts an impressive span and size. While the specific width of the channel it crosses can vary depending on the exact location along the river, the bridge’s design was influenced by the need to accommodate a wide variety of vessels, from small recreational boats to large commercial shipping traffic. The channel under the bridge is part of the Baltimore Harbor, which has been dredged and maintained to allow for the safe passage of these vessels.

a large cargo ship loaded with lots of containers


The size of these “Panamax” ships is hard to comprehend. The stacks of containers give us a reference point to help comprehend the size of these ships

The length of the navigable channel itself, as part of the Patapsco River and Baltimore Harbor, stretches far beyond the bridge, extending into the Chesapeake Bay and facilitating access to the Atlantic Ocean. This expanse is crucial for the port of Baltimore, one of the busiest in the United States, supporting both international trade and local commerce.

Roles and Responsibilities

The safe and efficient operation of the Francis Scott Key Bridge and its surrounding waters involves several key roles:

– **Harbor Master**: The harbor master plays a crucial role in managing the port’s activities, including vessel traffic, environmental protection, and safety. This individual coordinates the movements of ships entering and leaving the harbor, ensuring they do so in a manner that minimizes congestion and risk of accidents.

– **Tugboats**: Tugboats are essential for guiding large vessels through the harbor and under the bridge. Due to the size and limited maneuverability of many commercial ships, tugboats assist by towing or pushing them into position. These small but powerful boats are pivotal in preventing collisions and ensuring that ships can safely navigate through the channel.

a man in a white shirt is on a boatView from the “wing bridge” which extends out the sides of the vessel to increase the view from the helm, the nerve center of the ship’s control

Navigating the Waters

The process of navigating through the Baltimore Harbor and under the Francis Scott Key Bridge is a coordinated effort. Before a large vessel enters the harbor, the harbor master is notified, and a plan is put into place for its journey through the port. This often includes the assignment of tugboats to the vessel, which meet the ship at the mouth of the harbor and assist it in safely reaching its berth or passing under the bridge.

The Bridge, or control room of the ship sits on top, providing the best view for the captain and crew.

The width and depth of the channel under the bridge are closely monitored and maintained to accommodate the diverse range of vessels that utilize the port. Regular dredging ensures that the channel remains deep enough for large cargo ships, while markers and navigation aids help guide captains through the waters.

Loading and unloading containers

Even the process of loading and unloading the containers is a task of monumental proportions. Cranes specially built and designed for this purpose are in place for no other purpose.

a large cargo ship docked at a dock

The Francis Scott Key Bridge is more than just a physical structure; it is a vital component of Baltimore’s maritime infrastructure, facilitating economic activity and connecting communities. The roles of harbor masters, tugboat operators, and other maritime professionals are critical in ensuring the safe and efficient use of this important waterway. As vessels of all sizes navigate the Patapsco River and beneath the bridge, the coordination and expertise of these individuals ensure that the bridge remains a symbol of strength and connectivity for the region.

Ships will be able to navigate the passage once the wreckage of the bridge is cleared, a matter of weeks or months. Rebuilding the bridge could take five to ten years! That time line would be even longer if the President had not cleared the way for emergency federal funding for the undertaking. Welding experts will replace wreckage as the new construction gets underway. New pilings will provide stability and support for the required new sections of the bridge.



  • Senior Counsel Emeritus to the Boulder Law firm Dolan + Zimmerman LLP : (720)-610-0951
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