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UAlbany Professor David Banks, director of Globalization Studies program, discusses infrastructure issues after Key Bridge collapse

Professor David Banks
Lucas Willard
/
WAMC
Professor David Banks

As officials continue to investigate the collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore, the collision involving the Dali, a 100,000-ton cargo vessel, and the 50-year-old span is renewing questions and concerns about America’s aging infrastructure.

To learn more, WAMC’s Lucas Willard spoke with Dr. David Banks, a lecturer in the Geography and Planning Department at the University at Albany, and director of UAlbany’s Globalization Studies program…

These ships are so big now, ever since 2016 when the Panama Canal was expanded, that's the most narrow shipping point in the world. And so, all container ships are kind of based on that size. And when the Key Bridge was built in the 7’0s ships were not nearly as big as they are now. So, it's really a combination of the size of ships now, the design standards of the bridge at the time that it was built, and the inability to warn the crew that was on the bridge at the time repairing potholes, that I think led to the immediate collapse and the loss of life.

Is this a kind of scenario, based on the age of America's infrastructure, that you could see repeating itself, unfortunately, soon? Maybe not exactly in the same way, but just the combination of old infrastructure and new, larger, heavier tech.

Our nation's infrastructure is in abysmal shape. A recent report had many, many of our roads and bridges in critical condition up here in upstate New York. A lot of our infrastructure was built more than 50 years ago, and does need significant repair or replacement. The Troy-Menands bridge is due for replacement very soon and the Department of Transportation is already looking at new replacements for that. It’s OK now, but it needs replacing. Yeah, it is a serious concern to think about these bigger ships connected to older and passing by older infrastructure. It is something we should be looking at. And we don't put the kind of effort into our infrastructure that we should be.

So, certainly there's going to be a massive economic hit from this port in Baltimore closing, and that's a main shipping port for the East Coast . So how long would a bridge like this take to be one cleared out of the harbor, and to have a new one put up in place. I mean, here in New York, I'm thinking about when the Tappan Zee Bridge was taken down and the Cuomo bridge was erected next to it. And that was a years-long process. But that was done relatively quickly. And it was staged in a way so one bridge was open and remained open before the other one was finally completed.

Yeah, so Transportation Secretary Buttigieg has said that it will likely take months to clear the port and reconstructing a bridge will take years. So the most kind of immediate example that comes to mind for me is actually in Tampa in the early 80’s, when the Sunshine Skyway was hit in a somewhat similar scenario, a containership hit a pylon and it collapsed. And they replaced it with a bigger, taller bridge that would be easier to navigate through. And that took about five years to build that bridge. So, it could really be that long.

Even if the government gave all of its resources and said, ‘OK, this is priority number one, it would still be a years-long process.’

I believe it would. I mean, just comparing it, I think like to China, you know, which is the biggest constructor of infrastructure right now. Like, they can't build a bridge and in months.

So, does this produce any new security concerns, both about what's going on in Maryland, but also around the country with aging infrastructure? Does this highlight a number of national security concerns around the country?

Yeah, I think there is a very big security issue with regard to all of our transportation infrastructure. Not just maritime transportation, but we've seen an increasing danger to health and safety just through the derailing trains, planes, Boeing, not doing what it should to have a safety precautions in place for their planes. These are reoccurring issues. And I don't think it's wrong to see that as like, something that's happening more often. And when you look at the root cause of it, it has everything to do with the consolidation of the companies that build, manage and run our transportation infrastructure and that they see safety as a cost that they tried to minimize. And in that, more than I think anything else is a danger to this country.

Now are regulations inadequate or are they being ignored?

I would say that they're captured, right? It's something called regulatory capture where the organizations, the government agencies in charge of regulating safety are largely captured by the private concerns that they are supposed to be regulating. And so, we're seeing situations where planes that should have been inspected are not, or the construction process is not being followed in a way that is safe. And we have trains that aren't, that are frankly, too long. And, and that causes a lot of issues with, again, that mass tonnage that when you take a turn, that's what can cause a cause it to derail. And with this ship now, there are only a handful of builders, managers and owners of these shipping containers and the ships. And they’re pretty opaque. And to be able to manage them in an international way to regulate them is very difficult. And this ship, in particular, the Dali, was found in Chile to have significant issues with its propulsion system. And it's unclear right now if anything was dealt with between last June. when that was found, and today, right? And what sort of regulatory agency would cover that it's an international issue, right? And the owner of the Dali was also found to keep its crews on board longer than the nine months that international shipping laws supposed to keep them on, they've been on for a year or more. And so, those are issues that we would need to take into consideration.

Is there anything here in our own backyard that gives you any pause or worry? I'm thinking of the Hudson River, of course, extremely important economic highway, if you will, and the Port of Albany and the Port of Rensselaer and these places of entry where there's very large ships actually coming up the Hudson River now.

Sure. So, I mean, yeah, all of the cities around here in the Capital Region exist because we're the northernmost part of the Hudson River where seafaring ships can go. And so, yeah, it is something that we should be thinking about. And I'll also add that the rail that connects to these ports right, also have like some pretty serious materials on them that could be dangerous if the train derailed. But for maritime traffic, yeah. I recall, a couple of years ago that when we had a really bad freeze, something, a boat, like unmoored and was just floating down the Hudson.

Yeah, that was a wall a couple of years ago in February, there was the ice flow and all the boats loosed on the Hudson River.

Yeah, like, if we don't upgrade our ports to take care of that, yeah, that could be a serious issue. And including climate change, where like these rising sea levels could also impact existing infrastructure and how boats, where boats are floating vis-à-vis the bridges and ports and whatnot. So that should all be of concern. And also what's on those ships, we should be thinking about because if there's something explosive or toxic, even if it doesn't have a catastrophic collision with a bridge or something, just capsizing or losing any of his cargo can have serious environmental consequences.

Lucas Willard is a news reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011. He produces and hosts The Best of Our Knowledge and WAMC Listening Party.