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Why The Baltimore Bridge Collapse Should Be A Wakeup Call About Declining Infrastructure

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When it works, infrastructure is an afterthought. The average American spends very little time mulling it over. Which is perhaps why the tragic collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore came as such a shock.

The bridge, a 447-foot-long behemoth, had been standing for 47 years as some 30,000 cars drove across it every day. Uninterrupted, it likely would’ve stood for another two or three decades, one expert said recently. Why would anyone consider that it could meet its demise much earlier?

Manufacturers, on the other hand, are constantly navigating various infrastructure problems. For most, the collapse is another in a long line of failures that will likely only become more frequent if America does not take action in the near future.

Infrastructure is a massively important piece of the American economy, yet it hardly generates its fair share of discussion. We’ve built our systems of logistics with the assumption that various thoroughfares will be accessible, various resources will be prevalent. Those assumptions can be proven wrong as quickly as a 213-million-pound ship can take out a bridge.

Supply Chain Fallout From The Baltimore Bridge Collapse

Early reports are that replacing the bridge could cost the federal government between $1 billion and $5 billion. That’s a massive bill to lay at the foot of American taxpayers. But in reality, the impact of the collapse stretches far beyond that number.

The Port of Baltimore is one the country’s largest handlers of U.S. imports and exports, ranking among the top 10 harbors—when it comes to both tonnage and dollar value—for foreign cargo. International cargo that came through the port in 2023 was worth about $80.8 billion. Some 15,000 jobs were directly impacted, while another 139,000 had an indirect connection to the port. To the state of Maryland, it was “one of the largest economic generators,” according to Governor Wes Moore.

When there’s that much product coming in and out of a single port, shutting it down causes a significant disruption. The fallout spreads out like capillaries across the country. One vendor can’t get its hands on a product it needs, so it can’t produce goods in a timely manner for the next. The forces of supply and demand shift, causing costs to increase and cutting into manufacturers’ pockets.

Already, the importance of east coast ports had been on the rise, as the U.S. “attempts to boost its trade with friendly nations and reduce geopolitical risks related to trade with China, which generally happens via West Coast ports,” Tinglong Dai, an expert on global supply chains, told The Washington Post.

Infrastructure Concerns Aren’t New—And They’re Not Going Anywhere

The above numbers are stunning, but perhaps more stunning is the realization that these sorts of issues can occur without a ship veering off course. And if we don’t start funneling more money toward repairing our country’s rapidly aging infrastructure, they will become more commonplace.

Nearly one in 10 of the country’s 617,000 bridges already are “significantly compromised,” as National Geographic explored recently. Americans drive an astonishing 178 million trips on structurally deficient bridges each day, according to a 2021 report from the American Society of Civil Engineers. “Every county in the country has a list of bridges that, if they had money, they would replace tomorrow,” Maria Lehman, president of the ASCE, told National Geographic.

Renovation projects and funding have not kept up with the rate at which these bridges are falling into disrepair. Proportionally, the U.S. spends less than half of what the European Union does on infrastructure, at 1.5 percent of GDP compared to the EU’s 2.5 percent. “If you have to think in terms of catastrophe,” Amlan Mukherjee, who focuses on infrastructure at WAP Sustainability Consulting, told Nat Geo, “we’re already there.”

Beyond bridges and roads, the U.S. electrical grid is also cause for concern. As manufacturers jostle for position in the great electric vehicle race, it’s the aging underlying infrastructure—creeping toward capacity—that poses perhaps the most significant risk of smothering growth.

Our water infrastructure, too, has shown cracks. Manufacturers of all kinds need tons of water to operate effectively and efficiently. But infrastructure issues often stress availability. It is enough of an issue that some manufacturers have started banding together to lobby for change. In Northeast Ohio, the Cleveland Freshwater Alliance has been heavily involved in pushing for change and coming up with creative ways to realize it. The Ohio Water Partnership has similarly banded together a range of businesses to press decision-makers for change, with the recognition that water quality impacts their success. And Ohio has joined Illinois and Wisconsin to create the Great Lakes Water Innovation Engine, which pushes for innovation that will bring more water-intensive manufacturers to the region.

The stakes are high: In Texas alone, faulty infrastructure, breaks and leaks, and other issues have led to losses of more than 130 billion gallons of water per year, according to recent audit data.

What’s At Stake

With the passing of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law in 2021, some help is on the way. The legislation is providing $1.2 trillion over five years, including $110 billion to repair roads and bridges and transform transportation infrastructure. There was also a designated slice of the pie for electrical grid improvements. It is a lot of money, but even the heftiest one-time infusion still happens just once. More funding will be needed to right the proverbial ship. “Unless it is renewed regularly,” Nat Geo concludes of the infrastructure bill, “this funding will barely stop the bleeding.”

By now, manufacturers are well-versed in the language of supply chain disruption. The pandemic opened our eyes to the unpredictability and risk any business takes on when it relies on another one separated by an ocean. But our infrastructure right here in America also poses significant risk, even if the crisis remains largely invisible until tragedy strikes.

Failures can and do have significant effects on the supply chain. So, if they haven’t already, manufacturers should be taking stock of how certain goods make their way to their shop floors and assessing backup plans for shutdown scenarios. They should also be taking an active role in understanding the pressing issues in their own communities, banding together with their peers to lobby for funding to fix them before it’s too late.

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