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His New Job Started With A Bridge Collapse. Now Baltimore’s Top Port Official Looks Forward

Jonathan Daniels became executive director of the Maryland Port Administration just six weeks before an errant cargo ship struck Baltimore's Francis Scott Key Bridge and forced the port to shut down earlier this year.

Maryland Port Administration Executive Director Jonathan Daniels and CBRE Global Client Strategist Spencer Levy at Bisnow's Baltimore State of the Market.

In his first meeting with his employees after the collapse, Daniels told them not to worry about the shocking experience of the bridge collapsing, but instead to focus on what lies ahead.

“I told my staff … ‘You will not be judged by the fact the bridge went into the river. You will be judged by how we responded to it,’” said Daniels, speaking Thursday at Bisnow’s Baltimore State of the Market event, held at CFG Bank Arena. 

He added that they would be judged on how they mitigated the economic impact of the tragedy on the 8,000 people who work inside the port and the 21,000 jobs that depend directly on port activity. The biggest way to help those workers, he said, was to reopen the shipping channel as fast as possible. 

On Wednesday, Maryland leaders celebrated the full reopening of the port, with the 700-foot-wide channel returning to its prior state just 11 weeks after the bridge tumbled into the Patapsco River. 

This reopening came quicker than many anticipated, but the work to stabilize the economy isn't done, Daniels said. The state is now working to bring back all of the shipping business that was temporarily rerouted to ports in Virginia, New York, New Jersey and Georgia. 

Daniels said the Port of Baltimore has an advantage because of its proximity to one of the most densely populated regions in the country, including D.C., Baltimore and their suburbs. He said the goods from 70% of all inbound containers are consumed within 70 miles of the port.  

“Lines from Asia, from Europe and the world, they all indicated, ‘While our cargo that traditionally goes to the Port of Baltimore, while it was necessary to go elsewhere, it is not long-term sustainable because of inland transportation costs. We want to put as much cargo on the largest mode of transport and get it as close as we can to market,’” he said.

“That’s the Port of Baltimore.”

The biggest long-term project to stabilize the region’s economy will be the rebuilding of the bridge, an effort that is just getting underway. 

Maryland Gov. Wes Moore speaks at the Port of Baltimore's reopening event on June 12.

On May 31, Maryland released a request for proposals with a June 24 deadline for joint teams of designers and contractors to work with the state to build a new bridge. It said the state anticipates selecting a team by late summer, and it expects the project will be completed in the fall of 2028. 

Daniels said he is working to minimize the impact of the construction of the new bridge on the shipping lanes in the port. 

“If there is a large lift that’s being done, concrete or something in that central span, we’ll work with them to make sure that our carriers understand that there are going to be closures, and we’re going to ask they do some work at night or off hours so it doesn’t impact our ship schedule,” he said. “Carriers and shippers should not be worried about impacts to the closure of the channel during the construction process.”

One other outstanding piece of business from the collapse is the departure of the ship that caused it. The container ship Dali was trapped under a portion of the bridge for nearly two months before it was refloated and brought to the Seagirt Marine Terminal on May 20. 

It remained at that terminal as of Thursday, Daniels said, as crews were still working to remove material and make sure it was seaworthy, and some legal and insurance issues were being resolved. But he said he expected the ship would depart in about a week. 

The state is looking to do more than just return the Port of Baltimore to its prior state. It is also working on infrastructure improvements that could boost its revenue higher than ever. 

It selected a construction team in December for the expansion of the Howard Street Tunnel, a 125-year-old tunnel that acts as a choke point in CSX Transportation’s freight rail network. By expanding its clearance by just 18 inches, it will allow for double-stacked cargo trains to use the passage to get from Baltimore to Philadelphia and into the Midwest. 

“That gives Baltimore access to an additional 160,000 containers on an annual basis,” Daniels said. 

He added that the tunnel expansion plan is part of the reason Baltimore’s Tradepoint Atlantic industrial hub on Sparrows Point reached a deal in late 2022 with Terminal Investment Ltd. to build a 165-acre container facility with an on-dock rail facility. 

That $1B project would ultimately lead to increased capacity at the Port of Baltimore, Daniels said. 

“That’s going to move off the public docks to a private facility, so I end up getting access to new container storage, and I don’t have to pay a cent for it,” he said. “That’s a pretty good use of public funds right there and a great return on investment that's being made by the private sector.”

Ultimately, he said the closure of the port after the bridge collapse was a temporary blip in the city's trajectory, although it was a “historic blip.” He also said it raised awareness of the port's role in the region's economy. 

“If you want to find out how important a piece of infrastructure is to the economy, pull it out for a period of time and be without it,” he said. “Now I hoped I’d never have to deal with that, but we do have to deal with that. ... For job creation, for the economy as an economic driver — [people] understand what it’s like now to be without the port.”