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Shipping rates between the U.S. and Asia are elevated over 2019 levels, and the Baltimore bridge collapse could increase them further.

The Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore collapsed after it was struck by a container ship on March 26, and industry experts say the crash could impact ocean freight shipping rates for local and international businesses as ships divert to alternate ports and customers turn to rail and trucks.

The collapse led to the closure of the Port of Baltimore, one of the largest East Coast ports in the United States by volume of cargo that passes through. Mayor Brandon Scott declared a State of Emergency — to remain in place at least 30 days — following the collapse. 

In 2023, the port imported $55.2 billion in cargo and exported $80 billion, a record for the city, Governor Wes Moore said in a statement. It is the 11th-largest port in the country.

Baltimore bridge collapse’s impact on shipping rates

Imports scheduled for the Port of Baltimore will likely be diverted to other East Coast hubs like New York; Norfolk, Virginia; or Philadelphia, said Judah Levine, head of research at online freight shipping marketplace Freightos.

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Although Baltimore handles a smaller volume than those ports, the diversions could cause congestion and delays, he said. Ocean freight is entering its “slow season,” Levine noted, so it’s likely that the ships can visit other ports instead without causing significant disruptions. 

The diversions will “not create any serious supply chain problem, but things may take a day or two longer and cost just a little bit more,” ShipMatrix president Satish Jindel said in an interview. ShipMatrix tracks shipping volume and on-time performance among parcel-delivery companies.

Baltimore only handles about 13% of the volume that goes through New York and New Jersey, Freightos found.

However, if there is congestion, accompanied by long wait times, it could push up freight rates between Asia and the U.S. East Coast and Europe and the U.S., according to Levine.

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Freight rates between Asia and the U.S. East Coast are more than twice as high as they were in 2019. That’s due in part to diversions from the Red Sea because of Houthi attacks on cargo ships. Rates peaked in February and have since fallen 22% to their current level of $5,284 per 40-foot equivalent unit container (FEU).

Transatlantic rates are about equivalent to 2019 rates at $1,659 per FEU, according to Freightos.

UPS posted a service alert noting that the bridge impacted its ocean freight.

“Ocean container vessels with Baltimore as a port of call may be rerouted to alternative ports,” the alert said. “Congestion and delays should be expected throughout the US East Coast, including at Norfolk and New York/New Jersey. Due to this situation, additional expenses and service delays may be incurred for current and future shipments.”

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Exporters will also have to reroute shipments by truck or rail to other nearby ports, Levine said. They, too, could face increased rates as others make the same move.

Auto industry 

Baltimore serves a sizable portion of the auto industry through its port, Jindel said, alongside farm and construction vehicles. In 2023, 847,158 cars and trucks traveled through the Port of Baltimore, more than any other U.S. port, Gov. Moore said.

Nissan, General Motors, Volvo, Volkswagen, Toyota and Jaguar Land Rover all ship cars through the Port of Baltimore.

The disruption could also impact Baltimore’s coal exports, which topped 20 million tons last year.

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“There may be a slight delay in total travel time, but coal is not an urgent commodity,” Jindel said.

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