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Opinion: Baltimore’s tragedy shows the US maritime transportation crisis demands our attention

Editor’s Note: Rear Admiral Richard Timme retired from the Coast Guard after 32 years of service. As the Coast Guard’s assistant commandant for prevention policy, he led the development and implementation of international and national policy, standards and programs to promote marine safety, security and environmental stewardship. He currently serves as president of VXMarine, a provider of marine assets and services. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.

In the wee hours of Tuesday morning, a DALI cargo ship struck the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore, resulting in its tragic collapse into the Patapsco River that claimed the lives of at least six people, some of them migrant workers from Mexico and Guatemala.

Richard Timme - Courtesy Richard Timme
Richard Timme - Courtesy Richard Timme

That morning, I woke up to a backlog of texts, emails and social media outreach asking for insights into what could have gone wrong.

The video is heartbreaking if you are familiar with the operations in the pilothouse and engine room of a large commercial vessel departing port.

When the ship went dark from the loss of power, the pilot, the captain and the engineers on board leapt into emergency mode. They knew that the only way to steer that ship was with water over the rudder from a moving propellor. Every ounce of their beings would have been concentrated on restoring steerage way. But they didn’t make it. The crew’s “mayday” call, however, likely saved lives as vehicle traffic was halted preventing an even larger tragedy.

In more than 32 years of public service furthering our maritime safety and security interests, I have responded to numerous casualties and disruptions of the system of ports, waterways, vessels and mariners known collectively as the US Marine Transportation System (MTS).

I know the resultant public discourse from this tragedy will focus laser-like on the particulars of this disaster, as it should. However, the maritime challenges we face as a nation require systemic attention from policy makers at the federal level that not only focuses on the regulatory requirements of ships, but that addresses the resiliency of the MTS and foster innovation by the private sector to meet new challenges.

The US Coast Guard, the National Transportation Safety Board and other law enforcement agencies are now investigating whether this incident was caused by simple mechanical failure, or by actors with malicious intent.

Although the cause has been preliminarily attributed to a power failure and no evidence of malice has been reported, each agency continues to move toward a complete and thorough understanding of the causal factors involved. Specifically, the question is: which of the many mitigators put in place by a regulatory system of standards failed to prevent this event?

Subsequently, policymakers may update security or safety regulations. However, the consequences of the collision, no matter the underlying reasons, will reverberate across our ports, test the resiliency of our supply chains (again) and perhaps alter traditional vessel traffic patterns as the global market adjusts to this and other disturbances, such as the disruptions to shipping in the Red Sea.

The fact remains that our MTS continues to be undervalued and underserved by public policy and expenditures, given its tremendous importance to not only our economic interests, but national security as well.

The MTS broadly serves 95,000 miles of US coastline, with 361 commercial ports and more than 20,000 bridges that cross our waterways. The annual economic activity on the MTS exceeds $4.5 trillion and sustains 23 million US jobs. Moreover, upwards of 90% of US imports and exports move on our waterways.

During the Covid-19 pandemic that disrupted our ports, causing consumer goods to disappear from retail shelves, I heard it most concisely expressed as, “If there’s no shipping, there’s no shopping.”

While the US Department of Defense’s budget now exceeds $800 billion to meet its responsibilities, the agencies responsible for oversight of the MTS including the Maritime Administration, the US Coast Guard and the US Army Corps of Engineers toil away with a combined budget of less than $14 billion focused on our waterways’ safety and security.

With those funds, these agencies must maintain and deepen shipping channels; inspect US and foreign vessels, maintain the functionality of buoys and navigation lights, man vessel traffic systems, train and license mariners and facilitate US deep draft shipping interests — to name just a few.

The men and women of these services work tirelessly within their means to take on this massive challenge. However, a typical year on our waterways will see more than 80,000 foreign vessel calls on our ports and nearly 150 million passengers travel via cruise vessels and ferries, straining those tasked with maintaining safe and secure waterways.

Vulnerabilities remain in our system. The maritime ecosystem continues to evolve more quickly than the policy serving it. The Biden administration issued an executive order in February to address cybersecurity in our ports to address the increasing reliance on a connected system of digital control on ships and in ports.

From Chinese-manufactured cargo cranes to AI controlled operating systems, threat vectors for cyber actors have multiplied exponentially. Beyond cyberattacks, risks spring from new fuels, massively sized ships and lack of transparency into private financing for port infrastructure.

Our MTS remains vulnerable not only to attacks at the tactical level, but also to systemic erosion of control by foreign interests. Understanding the ownership and control of our infrastructure such as ports, terminals, cranes and computer systems demands our attention in order to address the threat of hostile foreign involvement.

Analysis by Rear Admiral James Watson and his co-authors in their new book “ZERO POINT FOUR” details just how our capacity and capability in waterways and shipping is not sufficient to meet future challenges. Following World War II, more than half the merchant vessels plying the world’s oceans were US flagged. Today a mere 0.4% of global trade is carried by US flagged vessels. We are and always have been a maritime nation, dependent on waterways for our way of life. Our Navy is second to none.

Fortunately, in our own internal waters and exclusive economic zone, we are served by a world class offshore fleet in the Gulf of Mexico, ensuring our energy interests on the outer continental shelf are maintained.

Similarly, the 25,000 miles of navigable inland waterways that are crucial to export grains that feed the world are served by a robust and modern fleet of tow vessels and barges. But to truly serve our national security interests, we must have a commercial oceangoing capability that serves under our own flag.

While US shipping and shipbuilding have diminished over the decades, China has surged to become the number one shipbuilding nation in the world. Additionally, China is the largest owner of cargo ship tonnage in the world.

Now is the time to put policies into place that incentivize US carriers that support the growth of US shipyards and that grow the pool of Americans entering our merchant marine. The US maritime industry is up to the task of meeting these challenges. A collaborative approach between government and the private sector has the potential to leverage a vast array of innovative technologies and approaches to achieve a safe and secure MTS.

The loss of life from this crisis and the cascading impacts to ports across our nation demand more than a brief time in the headlines.

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