In immediate rescue and recovery operations after the Dali cargo ship crashed into the Francis Scott Key Bridge connecting the critical Port of Baltimore to the nation’s interstate network Tuesday, and in more medium-term thinking about how to rebuild a complicated, multibillion-dollar bridge really fast, the federal government is doing everything it can to help the State of Maryland, and rightly so. This disaster is the type of out-of-the-blue cataclysm that states can’t handle on their own. But President Joe Biden’s offer on Tuesday to “pay for” a new bridge was odd. Even if the crash was an accident, as seems likely, the private company or companies responsible for the disaster should pay its full costs—likely running in the multiple billions—so that they do everything they can to prevent such crashes in the future.

In his prepared remarks Tuesday, Biden seemed well-informed about the crash and in command of the situation (save for one Biden-ism, when he reminisced about traveling over the car- and truck-only bridge by train). He updated the press on search-and-rescue and consoled the families of the six men presumed dead. “I know every minute in that circumstance feels like a lifetime.” He explained the economic repercussions of “one of the nation’s largest shipping hubs” being cut off from the mainland: the Baltimore port loads or unloads 850,000 cars for sale a year, plus supplies of sugar and gypsum.

But then he said something strange: “It’s my intention that the federal government will pay for the entire cost of reconstructing that bridge, and I expect . . . the Congress to support my effort.”

There’s nothing wrong with the federal government offering a no-interest immediate loan to Maryland, which owns (or owned) the tolled, 1.6-mile bridge, to speed the pace of building. Rebuilding the bridge will be expensive, likely topping $1 billion; the replacement for New York state’s three-mile Tappan Zee Bridge across the Hudson River cost $4 billion, and 25 percent inflation since that span’s 2018 completion would likely push the cost to $5 billion today.

But that’s not what Biden said: he said that the federal government would pay for the bridge. A reporter gave him an opportunity to modify his comment, noting that “this was a ship that appears to be at fault. Is there any reason to believe that the company behind the ship should be held responsible?” Biden’s response was mild: “That could be,” he observed, “but we’re not going to wait.” A day later, transportation secretary Pete Buttigieg was similarly reticent: “We can’t wait for that . . . right now,” he said.

But nobody is asking the White House to hold off on providing aid until it has recovered every last dime from responsible parties, so the “we can’t wait” answer is a straw man. Nobody is even asking the White House to come out thundering against private-sector negligence—though one would think that an administration that blames supermarkets for inflation and candy-bar makers for “shrinkflation” would jump at the chance to castigate the greedy evils of globalized shipping. Nevertheless, all the White House needed to say was: the federal government will temporarily fund the costs of the rescue and recovery effort, survivor and injury compensation, lost-business claims, and rebuilding upfront, but will also ensure that the parties responsible for the crash provide full reimbursement.

Why not say just that? Seven months before the election, the White House may be reluctant to poke a stick into the complex, opaque nest of global shipping. The less than decade-old Singapore-based Dali cargo ship had a builder: South Korea’s Hyundai Industries. It had an owner: Grace Ocean Private of Singapore. It had a charter customer on its Baltimore voyage: Danish-based commercial shipper Maersk. But a different company, Synergy, operated the ship, with an Indian crew.

One or more of these entities is responsible for something that should never have happened in a dense urban shipping environment: the total failure of all propulsion and control over a 95,000-ton ship (as Buttigieg put it, it was more like a skyscraper crashing into the bridge). Even if the problem was counterfeit fuel, as one report speculated, someone was responsible for sourcing and testing that fuel.

Though the global shipping industry is all about obscuring, transferring, and limiting liability, the ship’s owner does have insurance—albeit likely capped at $3.1 billion, even in the most straightforward liability scenario. (One U.S. law, not yet invoked in this case, may limit liability to the value of the ship and cargo after the crash.)

The U.S. government could certainly be as worthy a negotiating adversary as Egypt, which, in 2021, had to impound the cargo ship Ever Given in 2021 to get the ship’s insurers to pay for damages for blocking the Suez Canal. But the level of damage there was much lower; the settlement, not officially publicized, was reportedly around $150 million (plus a free tugboat).

A multibillion-dollar insurance payout in the Dali case would inevitably spur insurers to raise insurance costs on future shippers. Already, the global cargo industry, including human tourist cargo, isn’t having a smooth run lately. Just this week, two crew members were killed on a Holland America ship in the Bahamas, and the sinking of the Costa Concordia near Italy in 2012 cost insurers $1.5 billion.

Higher insurance costs are not a bad thing if they accurately reflect the risk revealed by the Baltimore crash, especially if insurers increase their monitoring of global shipping practices to reduce this newly revealed hazard.

But for Biden, higher shipping-insurance costs are a bad thing. After years of Covid-19-related supply-chain woes and labor actions at U.S. ports that bottlenecked goods and helped drive prices up, the president doesn’t want anything else to push up the cost of global shipping before November. So he’s willing to write a check, no questions asked, to make the problem disappear, at least temporarily.

Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images


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