An Interview with Jonathan Daniels, Executive Director, Port of Baltimore

The Allision.

On June 11th eleven weeks after the containership MV Dali’s allision with the Francis Scott Key bridge, the bridge’s subsequent collapse and the closing of the Port of Baltimore’s Fort McHenry Channel in the Patapsco River, the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers (USACE) declared the channel clear and once again open to ship traffic.

The speed at which the ship channel was reopened was beyond extraordinary given the immense challenges that the salvors faced removing the bridge debris and freeing the MV Dali itself. After the allision with the bridge on March 26th, the MV Dali was wedged in place, weighted with bridge wreckage and at that moment, no one would have imagined that the waterway would be cleared in such an expedient manner.

Still, despite the incredible speed of the debris clearance, for those in the Baltimore’s port community it has been eleven very long weeks since the MV Dali’s allision with the bridge at approximately 1:30 am on March 26th.

For the Port of Baltimore’s Executive Director Jonathan Daniels, the calls and texts began very early, shortly after the MV Dali smashed into the Francis Scott Key Bridge. And with those early morning messages Daniels’ immediate job changed even if the port’s overall “mission” didn’t.

Port of Baltimore Executive Director Jonathan Daniels

Baltimore Comes Together

Going into 2024 the Port of Baltimore was on a roll. In 2023, the Port had posted a record in cargo tons, ro/ro was rolling, cruise passengers were the highest since 2012 and the Howard Tunnel project was getting underway to provide double stack rail clearances to enable freight to move to the Midwest. Additionally, the environmental initiatives were kicking off and a new port director, Jonathan Daniels, was ready to take the helm of the Maryland Port Authority (MPA).

Daniels was appointed the Port of Baltimore’s executive director on February 5th, a mere 51 days before the incident. His last career stop was in the Port of Everglades in Florida. But his long port management resume began shortly after he graduated from the Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina. At that time, Daniels made the unusual choice to attend Maine Maritime Academy to pursue maritime management. It might be said that that set him on a career path that included positions in ports like Eastport Port Authority in Maine, and the Port Authority of Oswego, New York, where he met the then local Congressional representative Daniel Maffei, now the Commissioner of the Federal Maritime Commission (FMC). Or his later executive postings in the Port of Gulfport, Mississippi and Port of Greater Baton Rouge in Louisiana before the penultimate job at the Port Everglades. But the career path wasn’t quite as serendipitous as it seems as both his father and grandfather had worked as stevedores on the Great Lakes, so to a degree, ports are the family business.

In taking any port management position one of the key tasks is getting to know the port stakeholders and being two months into the job, Daniels was already heavily engaged before the Dali incident. But the incident accelerated the process. As Daniels said of the lead up, “What’s interesting is that the Friday (March 22) before the incident, I was really wrapping up what I call my ‘stakeholder tour’ and met with a lot of groups, (and) met with the Baltimore Port Alliance…. met with a lot of the Port users and stakeholders. That was my last outreach meeting.” However, because of the Dali incident the outreach accelerated and as Daniels explained, “I recently met with a lot of the people that I’m working with, that we would be working with during the Unified Command [the combined group of USCG] and probably put me in contact with people that I would not have met until maybe a year or so, a year or more into my second year.”

Daniels’ is no stranger to ports in times of crises. He was involved in the rebuild from Hurricane Katrina and COVID. And his views of how the State of Maryland handled the situation offers insight into just how well a grave situation has been handled and the promise this holds for the future.

“The view from the Governor and the leadership from Governor Moore and Lieutenant Governor Miller basically stipulated that we lost six Marylanders as part of the accident. His theme throughout, and it was evident during every meeting that he had with the Unified Command, ‘is I want this done’. Priority number two was the opening up of the channel again and the opening up of the Port. But that was not going to be done while sacrificing any type of safety considerations. He was bound and determined not to need any type of additional fatalities to the salvage operation.”

Sources: Vessel location information is from the USDOT Volpe Center SeaVision system.  Vehicle counts are from the Maryland Transportation Authority FY 2024 Traffic and Toll Revenue Forecast Update, November 3, 2023.  The map, statistics on hazardous cargo routes, and tabulations of the Freight Analysis Framework are by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

Beyond the Bridge

Although the incident situation was at the time still unfolding, there was still the future of the Port to be considered — the “mission” for which Daniels was hired. As Daniels relates, the port’s future “was evident on day two [after the Dali allision] when [Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT)] Secretary [Paul J.] Wiedefeld, my boss, pulled me aside and said, “You have to deal with this instant, and it is international in scope. Don’t forget the fact that you have a port to manage and a port to grow.” That has been throughout this incident. We as a staff and as a Maryland Port Administration MPA) never lost sight of the fact that we were going to come out of this, [and] that we were going to have the opportunity to rebound, but more importantly that we had a need to be able to evaluate all aspects of our operation to see how we were going to grow from this.”

For the MPA there is both the short term and long term to be considered.

“We actually kicked off our strategic weekly plan during this incident. Then we added our short term business plan over about the next three to five years. That is going to match part of a larger master business plan we’ll be kicking off sometime in 2024 for the future for the Port of Baltimore,” Daniels said of the planning process.

As for the port’s ‘Master Plan’, Daniels outlined that the MPA “is evaluating the commercial side and then backing that up with certain developments… that are going for that to be necessary.”

These involve among many other things taking a look at the already “strong” ro/ro operations, cruise ship growth prospects, environmental programs and the container terminal operations at Seagirt. He added that what we call our strategic business plan … will be completed by the end of 2024. The longer master vision plan ... we’ll be done with that sometime in maybe the third quarter, 2025. That’s a little bit more involved with infrastructure development…”

The speed at which the ship channel was reopened was beyond extraordinary given the immense challenges that the salvors faced removing the bridge debris.

Port of Baltimore: Proudly Pushing Ahead

And perhaps the biggest question mark for Seagirt Marine Terminal and the MPA involves the anticipated move of Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC), the world’s largest containership operator, to a new terminal. MSC is planning on switching its Baltimore port calls from Seagirt to the proposed Sparrow Point Container Terminal (SPCT) located on Tradepoint Point Atlantic’s (TPA) site upon the facility’s completion and estimated opening in 2028.

With that scenario as a backdrop, Daniels and the MPA are planning to aggressively push ahead.

“So, timing on this, (is) probably sometime in 2027 or 2028. [But] we’re not waiting for backfill opportunities. We need to be active and aggressive and looking (at) what’s available now in the growth of not only our existing trade lanes, but what new areas of the world…” Daniels said. Adding, “We’re going to look at what opportunities are out there, but we’re not waiting for that utility to become available. That’s where our staff is working hand in hand with Ports America Chesapeake [Seagirt’s operator and stevedore] to make sure that we’re going to backfill that prior to that move… we just don’t want a gap [in service].

Overall, the tragedy of the bridge has brought out the best in the State, the City and the Port, which bodes well for the future, as the rebuilding of a new bridge and really a new era in the Port of Baltimore begins. As Daniels said in explaining his interaction through the crucible of crisis with the greater port community, “The warm welcome I have had here has been incredible. That’s buoyed me during this process, the support that I’ve had, that we’ve had at all levels, the way in which the federal government, state government, local entities have all come together on this. I have never seen a response to any incident I’ve ever been involved in the way that we’ve seen it here…I’ve never been as proud to be a part of such an incident, as tragic as it is. The way in which it was worked through and to be able to open up in just a couple months, we should be proud. We should honor what happened and respect what happened, but we should be very proud of what was accomplished by the Unified Command, and everybody involved during this time.”