Federal Rebuild Of Baltimore Bridge ‘will not be quick or easy or cheap,’ Buttigieg Says

Jacob Fischler, Wisconsin Examiner

U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg outlined Wednesday the immediate and longer-term priorities the Biden administration is pursuing in the aftermath of the Francis Scott Key Bridge collapse in Baltimore that left six presumed dead.

While many questions remained roughly 36 hours after a massive cargo ship struck the bridge and caused the deadly collapse, Buttigieg at a White House press briefing reiterated President Joe Biden’s pledge a day earlier for the federal government to fund the full cost of rebuilding the bridge.

The U.S. Coast Guard is also leading efforts to clear debris from the site to reopen operations at the busy Port of Baltimore, Vice Admiral Peter Gautier, the deputy commandant for operations for the Coast Guard, said at the briefing.

“It’s just too soon to say” exactly how much money or time will be needed to rebuild the bridge or open the port, Buttigieg told reporters.

“Rebuilding will not be quick or easy or cheap,” Buttigieg said. “But we will get it done.”

The U.S. Transportation Department received a preliminary estimate from the Maryland Department of Transportation around the time Buttigieg addressed reporters at the Wednesday afternoon briefing, he said.

He did not share the sum requested, but said the state’s official request would allow federal money to flow even before a full cost is known.

Congressional action likely needed

The bipartisan infrastructure law enacted in 2021 authorized funding for the Transportation Department’s emergency relief program, which would likely be a mechanism for federal funding, Buttigieg said, though he added it’s likely Congress will have to approve more emergency appropriations.

“It is certainly possible – I would go so far as to say likely – that we may be turning to Congress in order to help top-up those funds,” Buttigieg said. “But that shouldn’t be a barrier to the immediate next few days starting to get the ball rolling.”

The emergency relief account has about $950 million, Buttigieg said, “but also a long line of needs and projects behind that.”

The Federal Highway Administration’s emergency fund allocated about $560 million in fiscal 2024.

Asked if the companies that own and operate the ship involved, the Dali, would be made to pay for reconstruction, Buttigieg said the government would pursue accountability for “any private party found to be responsible,” but that Biden didn’t want to wait for that process to play out before sending funds to Maryland.

For the second day in a row, Biden spoke with Maryland Gov. Wes Moore, members of the state’s congressional delegation and local leaders and reiterated his administration’s support “every step of the way,” according to a White House pool report.

The administration could ease regulatory requirements to speed bridge construction, Buttigieg said, though he noted it was too early to know what regulations would be at play.

“We have a clear direction from the president to tear down any barriers, bureaucratic as well as financial, that could affect the timeline of this project,” he said.

Port reopening

Buttigieg did not have an estimate for how long it would take to rebuild the bridge or to reopen the port. The initial construction of the Key Bridge took five years in the 1970s, he said.

“That does not necessarily mean it will take five years to replace, but that tells you what went into that original structure,” he said. “So it is going to be some time.”

The port could be reopened before a new bridge is built, he said.

Debris from the collapsed bridge is blocking the shipping channel connecting the port to the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. The remains of the bridge must be cleared before the port can restart operations.

Reopening the port is among the administration’s top priorities in the aftermath of the collapse.

The port is a major economic hub, directly supporting 8,000 jobs and about $2 million in wages daily, Buttigieg said.

The port also usually handles between $100 million and $200 million in cargo daily. But the disruption to shipping traffic is slightly less urgent, Buttigieg said.

Ships often visit the port as part of a run along the Eastern Seaboard, including the Port of New York and New Jersey and Virginia ports, he said. Cargo is already being diverted to other East Coast ports, he said.

“That said, the Port of Baltimore is an important port,” he said. “So for our supply chains, and for all the workers who depend on it for their income, we’re going to help to get it open as soon as safely possible.”

Investigation ongoing

Buttigieg declined to comment in detail on the investigation into the crash, which is being conducted by the National Transportation Safety Board, an independent agency.

The bridge, which opened in 1977, was not built to withstand the force of a 200-million-pound vessel crashing into a key structural feature, he said, casting doubt on whether any engineering feature could have helped.

“Part of what’s being debated is whether any design feature now known would have made a difference in this case,” Buttigieg said.

But, he said, if the NTSB determines anything that should be considered in regulations, inspections, designs or funding for bridges, the administration would “be ready to apply those findings.”

Wisconsin Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Wisconsin Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Ruth Conniff for questions: info@wisconsinexaminer.com. Follow Wisconsin Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.

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