A Former Maryland Governor Ignored Warnings About Megaships

As Maryland governor, current GOP senate candidate Larry Hogan flouted safety warnings and sought to attract massive cargo vessels to Baltimore’s port — vessels just like the one that crashed into the Key Bridge last week.

The cargo ship Dali sits in the water after running into and collapsing the Francis Scott Key Bridge on March 26, 2024 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Kevin Dietsch / Getty Images)

Days after a massive cargo ship collided with the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore, Republican US senate candidate Larry Hogan called for the federal government to foot the bill for the bridge’s reconstruction. Hogan’s demand follows his efforts as Maryland’s governor to attract such outsize cargo vessels to Baltimore’s port in the first place — despite safety warnings from an insurance giant and transportation experts.

Regardless of those concerns, Hogan’s gubernatorial administration pledged that bringing ever-larger cargo ships to Baltimore would strengthen the economy — and even improve safety.

His administration’s major public-private partnership to attract such megaships promised that it “reduces the occurrences of crashes, fatalities and injuries among transportation users.”

Hogan appointed the head of dredging contractors’ lobbying group to run the port amid the much-celebrated expansion that doled out lucrative dredging and construction contracts.

As the insurance conglomerate Allianz was spotlighting the dangers of large cargo ships, Hogan positioned himself as his state’s highest-profile supporter of the megaship industry — at one point declaring that thanks to his administration’s investments, “every year we are seeing larger and larger container ships choosing the Port of Baltimore.”

During the Republican governor’s tenure, megaship traffic in Baltimore exploded, transporting record amounts of cargo through the port worth billions of dollars. But as the port expanded with Hogan’s support, experts say the Key Bridge, as it was commonly known, may not have been fortified for the possibility of a collision with such large ships — even though a cargo vessel had already crashed into the bridge a few decades earlier, when ships were smaller.

Hogan, who is now running for one of Maryland’s US senate seats, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Expansion Amid Warnings

In 2015, two institutions sounded alarms about the push for ever-larger cargo ships.

“Ship size growth raises risk management concerns,” warned a report that year from insurance giant Allianz. “Larger ships could also mean larger losses. . . . Maximum exposure will not necessarily be limited to vessel and cargo value but could also include environmental, social or business interruption backlash.”

In a report published that same year by the International Transport Forum, a consortium of sixty-six governments, researchers wrote, “The costs to salvage hulls of [the] largest existing containerships in case of accident will increase because of the lack of salvage equipment and technology capable of removing a wreck of this size.”

The International Transit Forum report explicitly warned cities against using public money to retrofit ports to encourage larger ships.

“In the case of megaships, this situation risks [leading] to situations where the public sector picks up the bill of costs imposed by shipping lines,” the report said. “Especially where ports are engaged in fierce competition to attract megaships, port authorities might be tempted [to] use public funds to attract these. . . . There is no inherent public interest in stimulating megaships, so there is no reason why public funds should be used to favour mega-container ships.”

Nonetheless, in 2017, Hogan’s port officials, who manage operations and strategic planning for the Baltimore port, purchased additional land to build infrastructure to attract ever-larger cargo vessels. At the time, Baltimore’s port on the Chesapeake Bay was one of the busiest in the nation and just one of four on the East Coast that could handle these megaships.

The following year, the Maryland Port Administration requested millions of dollars of federal funds to accommodate the “ever-increasing size of container ships.”

The proposal specifically touted the port’s additional safety enhancements, asserting that it “improves navigational safety, thereby reducing the potential for release of hazardous materials into the nation’s waterways.”

Hogan, first elected governor in 2014, reportedly had an active role in championing the expansion.

Maryland Port Administration executive director James White, who oversaw large parts of the port’s expansion during his eighteen-year tenure, emphasized Hogan’s support for the project in a 2019 statement. “Governor Hogan’s support for the Port of Baltimore from day one has set the course for the future of the port from the Howard Street Tunnel to key infrastructure investments,” noted White.

In 2020, Hogan appointed William P. Doyle, previously the CEO of the industry group Dredging Contractors of America, to lead the Port Administration. Doyle was also appointed to be a sitting member of the federal Maritime Transportation System National Advisory Committee, which helps shape national shipping policy, by US transportation secretary Pete Buttigieg in November 2022.

The Hogan administration’s 2018 port-expansion application included implementing safety requirements for dredging the channel, widening the space needed for these boats’ turning radius, and fortifying the wharf structure, among other considerations. But it did not make any adjustments or designate protections for the nearby Key Bridge, which the ultra-large crafts would be traveling under.

Meanwhile, the port administration said the project had “few and well-mitigated risks.”

But as the port expansion was nearing completion, Allianz sounded another alarm.

“While approach channels to existing ports have been dredged deeper and berths and wharfs extended to accommodate ultra large vessels, the overall size of existing ports has remained the same,” wrote one of the insurance company’s senior marine risk consultants. “As a result, ‘a miss’ can turn into ‘a hit’ more often for the ultra large container vessels.”

A Previous Collision

Maryland officials pushing the port expansion offered safety reassurances despite engineers and marine experts previously expressing concerns about the safety of the Key Bridge, which was completed in 1977 and was at the minimum height needed to accommodate such ships.

“Extra capacity and safety tends to be needed all the more when the bridge is older,” researchers wrote in the International Transport Forum report, recommending bridge updates in busy port areas.

“The preferred method for building bridges today is that there is redundancy built in,” Jennifer Homendy, chair of National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the recent crash, told the Washington Post following the Key Bridge’s collapse on March 26. “This bridge did not have redundancy.”

In 1980, when a ship collided with the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in Florida, killing thirty-five people, a top state engineer said the Key Bridge could not withstand a similar crash. “I’m talking about the main supports, a direct hit — it would knock it down,” the official reportedly told the Baltimore Sun.

In the last decade, officials managing the Port of New York and New Jersey raised the nearby Bayonne Bridge to accommodate megaships traveling through the New York harbor. Federal, state, and local governments also invested more than $1.5 billion into replacing the Gerald Desmond Bridge in Long Beach, California, with a taller bridge that could accommodate larger vessels.

Despite the lack of such upgrades to the Key Bridge, in December 2018, Hogan announced that the state had been awarded the $6 million–plus in federal funding to expand Baltimore’s port. Less than a year later, the port welcomed its largest-ever ship, the Triton, at 1,210 feet long — longer than three football fields. That record was eclipsed in 2023 with the arrival of Ever Max, which holds one thousand more containers than the Triton.

“Thanks to Maryland’s investment in a 50-foot berth, every year we are seeing larger and larger container ships choosing the Port of Baltimore,” Hogan said in May 2019.

Yet the Key Bridge barely allowed for the arrival of new, larger cargo cranes for Baltimore’s expanded port. Maryland’s then transportation secretary Greg Slater boasted in a 2019 blog post about shutting down the bridge to allow “four new, massive Neo-Panamax container cranes . . . [to] pass beneath the Key bridge with just 3 feet of clearance.”

Ever-Growing Ships

Since 1968, container ships like the one that hit the Baltimore bridge have increased their carrying capacity by almost 1,500 percent, according to a fifty-year analysis by the business insurance company Allianz. These megaships are attractive to shipping companies because they’re more profitable: the larger the ship, the more goods it can transport while requiring less fuel per container.

The push to modernize and expand Baltimore’s port’s infrastructure was part of a race among East Coast cities to accommodate these megaships and the economic activity they would bring, once the Panama Canal completed its 2015 overhaul to allow for supersized cargo ships. In early 2012, Baltimore was already competing with other cities to expand its port infrastructure, installing enormous cranes and dredging its harbor.

But as the boats got bigger, so did the risks. In 2022, the Ever Forward — owned by the same Hong Kong–flagged company that grounded a different ship in the Suez Canal in 2020, an accident that is estimated to have cost the global economy up to $60 billion in delayed cargo — was grounded in the Chesapeake Bay for over a month.

The Chesapeake Bay features a characteristically shallow ecosystem, further exaggerating the risks of these megaships. Consequently, Maryland’s port administration and the US Army Corps of Engineers have to dredge 4.5 million tons of sediment from the port’s channel each year to keep ships from beaching.

Baltimore’s port expansion faced other objections. Environmental justice advocates had long sounded the alarm over the ship exhaust and toxic dust being generated by the second-largest coal-exporting port in the nation, and suggested that the expansion would open the door to greater hazards for portside communities in South Baltimore that have long faced environmental injustices.

Other advocates voiced concern about making the port a hub for liquefied natural gas exports, which emit more greenhouse gasses than coal when exported, as well as the ecological impacts of intensified dredging in the area.

But Hogan, a pro-business Republican who said the port project fit the state’s “Open for Business” agenda, has largely championed the industries and businesses that rely on the supersized ships. In doing so, he echoed the Baltimore business groups that pushed for the port expansion. Business sectors like construction and natural resource extraction, which heavily rely on the port, have been some of Hogan’s largest campaign donors.

Hogan recently stepped down from his position as honorary chairman of the new No Labels party, a moderate party aligned with secretive corporate interests, while launching his own bid for a Maryland senate seat.