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Car imports could slow with Port of Baltimore closures

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Cleanup efforts are underway following the devastating collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore. An enormous crane has arrived to remove the remains of the bridge. More cranes are on the way, but the cleanup is expected to be lengthy and complicated and have extensive economic costs. Baltimore handles more cars and light trucks than any other port in the United States. And now most of the port is blocked. NPR's Camila Domonoske has been reporting all week on how automakers are searching for alternatives.

Camila, thanks so much for being with us.

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CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: What kind of delays have you learned about?

DOMONOSKE: Mostly, I've learned that it is still too soon to say what kind of delays we're looking at. A lot depends on how long the port stays mostly blocked. That's going to determine what the workarounds are for companies, and so what the impacts are. Companies like Mazda and Mercedes - they say they're still looking at their options. But we know this is harder for them than rerouting a container. Baltimore is not a particularly big port when it comes to processing containers. But like you mentioned, it's very significant for vehicle imports and exports - handled nearly 850,000 of them last year.

And it's not just volume. It takes special ships to move these vehicles. They're called roll-on, roll-off, or ro-ro, vessels. And not every port is capable of handling them. And then once the vehicles come off the ship, there is really important processing that has to happen. This includes adding parts, installing accessories on the vehicles. There's inspections. There's paperwork that has to happen before a vehicle gets the window sticker, and that happens at the port. And if you can't do that, even if you've gotten them off the ship, you wouldn't be able to sell the car.

SIMON: What are the potential options? What are the alternatives?

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DOMONOSKE: Yeah. From my conversations, there's three that really stand out. One is there is a part of the Baltimore port that is still open. Right at the mouth of the harbor, there's a terminal that Volkswagen and BMW use for their vehicles. And that terminal has confirmed that they have the capacity to accept other vehicles, too.

Second, companies could unload their vehicles at another port altogether and then drive them to Baltimore for the second part of the process - the processing. I talked to the Port of New York and New Jersey in Newark. They said they have been in conversations about this - that they could take vehicles off a ship and put them right on a car carrier bound for Baltimore. And, Scott, one advantage of both of those approaches for Baltimore is it would still support jobs at the port, even while ships can't get through.

SIMON: But you mentioned three options.

DOMONOSKE: Yeah. The other is companies could use ports that are much farther away, where they are already processing their vehicles. So for instance, there is the Port of Brunswick in Georgia. It's a long way from Baltimore, but the port says they have had conversations about being a backup option. And there are other ports up and down the East Coast that are also good candidates. They're places that companies are already doing this vehicle processing for other parts of the U.S. market.

It would mean a longer drive to dealerships, but a lot of ships go up and down the East Coast and stop at multiple ports, so it might not require a detour at sea. And it would mean the carmaker could unload and process the vehicle at the same port, in the same place they already use - basically their normal process until the drive.

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SIMON: However, does this mean that Baltimore could lose out on this important business in the long term?

DOMONOSKE: People have really emphasized to me this would be an interim solution. Baltimore's location - right in the middle of the East Coast - the expertise and the equipment that Baltimore has for these kinds of vehicles in particular, that will still be there in the future. I spoke to one supply chain expert, who was very confident that this was not going to hurt the port's long-term outlook.

SIMON: NPR's Camila Domonoske. Thanks so much for being with us.

DOMONOSKE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Camila Domonoske
Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.