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Baltimore Harbor and Channels Limited Reevaluation Report

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Baltimore District is currently partnering with the Maryland Port Administration on the Baltimore Harbor and Channels 50-Foot Project Limited Reevaluation Report. This study effort is evaluating the feasibility of improvements, including potentially widening different sections, to the existing deep-draft channels in Maryland and Virginia waters of the Chesapeake Bay and Patapsco River that lead in and out of the Port of Baltimore and other measures for continued safe and efficient waterborne commerce. 

The Baltimore Harbor and Channels 50-Foot project was authorized by Section 101 of the River and Harbor Act of 1970 (Pub. L. 91-611), as amended by Section 909 of the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) of 1986. The project was recommended for phased construction in 1985 via a supplement to a 1981 General Design Memorandum (GDM). The 1985 Supplement recommended a phased implementation to “hasten commencement” of the project, with the second phase being implemented “at a future date to be determined.” 

Phase I of project implementation provided a 50-foot deep main shipping channel from the Virginia Capes to Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor. In addition, the project includes the Curtis Bay Channel, the East Channel, and the West Channel, which are dredged to depths of 50 feet, 49 feet, and 40 feet, respectively, with all three channels authorized to a width of 600 feet. Due to financial and dredged material placement capacity constraints at the time, several channel components of the 50-foot project were not constructed to the authorized widths during Phase I. Two of the three 1000-foot wide Virginia channels were constructed to a width of 800 feet, the 800-foot wide Maryland channels were constructed to 700 feet, and the 600-foot wide Curtis Bay Channel was constructed to a width of 400 feet. 

Phase II may widen some, none, or all of those channels to their originally authorized widths or be implementation of other measures depending on the recommendation of the Baltimore Harbor and Channel 50-Foot Project Limited Reevaluation Report. 

The ongoing study is evaluating the technical feasibility, environmental acceptability, and economic justification of implementing Phase II of the Baltimore Harbor and Channels 50-Foot Project or other measures to provide for safe passage of ships utilizing these navigation channels.


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Stemming from concerns expressed by vessel pilots and shipping interests, in 2012 the Maryland Port Administration expressed interest in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers initiating Phase II of the Baltimore Harbor and Channels 50-Foot Project. That led to the development of a study approach for the Limited Reevaluation Study in 2013 and the signing of a cost-sharing agreement between the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Maryland Port Administration in 2014 which formally initiated the Baltimore Harbor and Channel 50-Foot Project Limited Reevaluation Report. 

Since completion of Phase I in 1990, the maritime industry has continued to utilize increasingly larger vessels to make port calls in Baltimore Harbor. The current channels were designed for dry bulk and tanker ships of up to 150,000 Deadweight Tonnes (DWT), which corresponds to beams (widths) of about 145 feet and drafts (depths) up to 50 feet. 

The maritime industry has continued to move toward larger vessels trading in commodities not forecasted or formulated for in the GDM. Baltimore has been positioned to accept this traffic due to its adequate channel depth, but the narrow channel width has caused great concern among the pilots and shipping companies from a safety and efficiency perspective. As deep and wide vessels move through the narrow channels, it is oftentimes impossible for other ships to pass. Although the frequency of these occurrences is not yet quantified, MD Pilots note that a big variable is how busy the coal terminals are, as that is where the majority of the Cape Class bulk vessels (approximately 106 feet in width) travel to/from. Bulk vessels coming to and from Sparrows Point have been an issue and will likely continue to be an issue in the future. This results in delays and increased costs. Further, in 2016 when the Panama Canal improvements are scheduled to be completed and ships with drafts of up to 50-feet and beams of up to 160-feet can move through the Canal, an increase in calls by larger vessels is anticipated. Currently, deeper and wider vessels sometimes experience conditions that have the potential for safety issues when passing other ships in the narrow channels, which results in time delays and increased shipping costs. Currently, Baltimore is one of two East Coast ports that can accommodate this ship size.

The purpose of this study is to identify and evaluate measures that would allow for efficient passage of the future fleet composition that is expected to call to the Port of Baltimore.

Because so much time has passed since the original Environmental Impact Statement in 1981, the original environmental review work is being updated as part of ongoing Baltimore Harbor and Channel 50-Foot Project Limited Reevaluation Report. In accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is preparing a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) regarding the execution of Phase II of the Baltimore Harbor and Channels 50-Foot Project. The SEIS will be part of the effort to determine what measures will allow for the efficient transport of goods into and out of Baltimore Harbor. 

At the beginning of the SEIS process, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers held two public scoping meetings to gather information from the public regarding what to take into account when preparing the SEIS and has continued to coordinate with stakeholders through the process. 

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers expects to have a draft SEIS available to the public for review in late 2016.

Any U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Civil Works project must meet certain criteria in order to be approved for construction and subsequently be budgeted construction funds. One of the central requirements is economic justification, which means a project must show a benefit-to-cost ratio (BCR) of at least greater than 1.0 in order to be even considered for approval. The BCR of a potential project is determined by evaluating the benefits that can be expected from the implementation of a project and comparing them to the costs associated with implementing a project. 

Part of the Baltimore Harbor and Channel 50-Foot Project Limited Reevaluation Report is evaluating the BCR of implementing proposed measures. This involves utilizing modeling to determine the costs of potential shipping delays due to ship size and channel dimensions and delays alleviated with alternative measures. This also includes detailed evaluations of potential initial construction costs associated with Phase II measures (dredging contracts, costs for disposal of dredged material, costs of tugs, etc.) and future costs such as tug operations or maintenance costs associated with widened channels. 

The benefits, as measured by reduced costs for shipments of commodities, must be greater than the costs for project implementation for any formal recommendation for a project from the Baltimore Harbor and Channel 50-Foot Project Limited Reevaluation Report to be considered economically justified for federal investment.

There are several measures being evaluated during the study effort such as: 

  1. No Action - Leave channels as they are now 
  2. Channel Widening - Evaluate several widths based on the design vessel determination which can including widening the channels to their authorized widths 
  3. Tug Assist - The proposed alternative to channel widening would be to expand the zone of tug escorts into and out of Baltimore Harbor to facilitate two –way passage in the Brewerton and Craighill Channels. For large containerships or bulkers, escort would require 2‐3 tugs per ship and vessel speeds would have to be maintained at 4‐6 knots for tugs to be effective. As the existing harbor tugs are fully utilized, towing companies would have to bring in additional tugs to supply the required escorting capabilities, which is estimated to require 4‐6 additional harbor tugs depending on frequency of escorts and simultaneous passage.