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EXPERT PITCH: WVU supply chain expert says it’s smooth sailing for vehicle freight while coal exporters fume after Baltimore port closure

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — A West Virginia University global supply chain expert sees a varied landscape of challenges for different industries looking to move commodities into and out of the United States following Tuesday’s (March 26) collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge and subsequent closing of the Port of Baltimore.

John Saldanha, Sears Chair in Global Supply Chain Management, director of the Wehrle Global Supply Chain Lab, and professor at the WVU John Chambers College of Business and Economics, points to coal and automobiles as examples of two sectors affected very differently by Baltimore’s port closure.


“The tragedy in Baltimore is an increasingly common ‘black swan’ event affecting many different supply chains that involve a wide range of commodities, sources, destinations and transportation modes. Those varying factors are going to drive many different outcomes.

“The vessel that collided with the Key Bridge, the MV Dali, was a container ship, but Baltimore is a relatively small port for container shipping, only about a quarter of the size of the Port of New York and New Jersey. That is fortunate, because as we all witnessed when the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach could not keep up with the volume of imports during the pandemic, container shipping is one of the key drivers of the U.S. economy. Due to the Port of Baltimore’s small size, container ships scheduled to call there can easily be diverted to neighboring East Coast ports with the off-season capacity to accommodate the additional volumes before the summer peak.

“A different set of circumstances has led to a similar outcome for automobile shipments. Among U.S. ports, Baltimore’s handles the most wheeled freight, a category that includes automobiles and is also known as ‘RoRo’ or ‘roll-on, roll-off.’ However, thanks to the placement of the Tradepoint Atlantic Terminals, RoRo ships can avoid the site of the bridge collapse.

“This means that in the case of both container shipping and automobiles headed for car dealerships in the Mid-Atlantic and Midwest, there may be minor inconveniences and cost increases. On the other hand, regional coal producers in the Mid-Atlantic, including West Virginia, that export through the Port of Baltimore will face significant disruptions. Baltimore’s port is second in the U.S. in exports of coal.

“As long as the Curtis Bay coal-loading quays remain inaccessible, coal operators will have to find alternative transportation to Norfolk or elsewhere, as well as berthing capacity for their contracted ocean carriers to export the freight.” — John Saldanha, Sears Chair in Global Supply Chain Management and professor, WVU John Chambers College of Business and Economics

West Virginia University experts can provide commentary, insights and opinions on various news topics. Search for an expert by name, title, areas of expertise or college/school/department in the Experts Database at WVUToday.

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