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‘Shocking’ bridge collapse tests Biden infrastructure agenda

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The catastrophic collapse of Baltimore’s Francis Scott Key Bridge early Tuesday morning triggered emergency life-saving efforts, snarled traffic and shipping in the busy port city, and presented an election-year test for President Joe Biden and his team.

Officials said their immediate focus was on search and rescue operations after a cargo ship in the early morning hours slammed into one of the bridge’s pillars, causing large sections of the structure to plummet into the Patapsco River.

“It’s shocking and heartbreaking,” Maryland Democratic Gov. Wes Moore said at a morning news conference. “Right now, our exclusive focus is on saving lives,” he said.

Over the longer term, the response to the collapse presents a huge test for federal, state and local authorities, including Biden, who has put infrastructure at the heart of his agenda and is aiming to convince voters heading into the November election that he’s the most responsible choice to lead the government.

“I’ve directed my team to move heaven and Earth to reopen the port and rebuild the bridge as soon as humanly possible,” Biden said during an early afternoon press conference at the White House.

The president said he plans to visit the site as quickly as possible. “Everything so far indicates that this was a terrible accident,” the president said.

Ship traffic in the Port of Baltimore has been suspended until further notice, Biden said. The Army Corps of Engineers will help lead the effort to clear the channel, he said.

The Port of Baltimore is one of the nation’s largest shipping hubs, Biden said, and it’s “the top port in America for both imports and exports of automobiles and light trucks. Around 850,000 vehicles go through that port every single year, and we’re going to get it up and running again as soon as possible.” Over 30,000 vehicles cross the bridge on a daily basis, Biden said. “It’s one of the most important elements for the economy in the Northeast.”

“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,” Biden said.

Secretary Pete Buttigieg was slated to travel to the site of the bridge collapse Tuesday, the Transportation Department said.

“It’s flabbergasting. It’s just stunning to see a structure like that come down,” said Ray LaHood, who served as Transportation secretary during the Obama administration, during a Tuesday interview.

“Nothing like this has ever really happened,” LaHood added. “This is history making.”

He pointed to a 2007 bridge collapse in Minneapolis as the only incident that might be comparable. That collapse, on an interstate over the Mississippi River, killed 13 people and injured 145. But that was caused by structural damage, LaHood said, in contrast to the Baltimore bridge that was struck by a container ship.

This isn’t the first high-profile transportation disaster the Biden administration has handled. A train spilling hazardous chemicals in early 2023 after a derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, was a smaller-scale crisis that became a political headache for Biden’s team after conservatives criticized the administration’s response.

Former President Donald Trump and others slammed senior administration officials for waiting too long to visit the scene of the derailment. Biden, Buttigieg and other high-profile officials defended their response efforts and have since visited the site of the train wreck.

‘An enormous amount of money’

Maryland Gov. Wes Moore (left) speaks during a news conference as Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) looks on near the scene where a container ship collided with a support on the Francis Scott Key Bridge on Tuesday in Baltimore. | Steve Ruark/AP

The search and rescue efforts will be followed by investigations and rebuilding efforts that will involve an array of government agencies.

The Transportation Department has jurisdiction over the interstate highways, LaHood said, while the Coast Guard oversees the waterway. The independent National Transportation Safety Board will also do an investigation into what occurred, LaHood said.

Biden noted that the federal response will also include the the Federal Highway Administration, the FBI, the Army Corps, as well as Maryland and Baltimore officials.

The long-term rebuilding effort will be coordinated by the Transportation agency through the Federal Highway Administration, LaHood added. And it promises to be expensive.

“It’s going to cost an enormous amount of money to rebuild that bridge,” LaHood said. “Congress is going to have to do a special appropriation to pay for that. There’s no money set aside to build a structure like that right now.”

The enormous scale of the incident sent shock waves through the region and the nation Tuesday as the news broke and images of the collapse circulated.

“It’s like a movie,” said Kathy Szeliga, a Maryland Republican state delegate, said Tuesday morning on CNN.

Moore said Tuesday that recovery will include a “long-term build” that’s “going to require every facet and aspect of our society.” The immediate focus, he said, was “trying to save lives.”

Emergency responders were searching for six individuals who may have been on the bridge when it collapsed, Maryland Transportation Secretary Paul Wiedefeld said Tuesday. Two other individuals were accounted for, he said, one of whom was taken to the hospital.

An aerial view of the Francis Scott Key Bridge, which is partially sunk into the river after a container ship collided with one of the bridge’s supports Tuesday, March 26, 2024 in Baltimore. The major bridge in Baltimore snapped and collapsed after a container ship rammed into it early Tuesday, and several vehicles fell into the river below. Rescuers were searching for multiple people in the water. (WJLA via AP)
The Francis Scott Key Bridge can be seen partially sunk into the river below after a container ship collided with one of the bridge’s supports Tuesday in Baltimore. | WJLA/AP

A construction crew was repairing the bridge at the time of the collision, Wiedefeld said. They were “basically repairing potholes,” he said. It “had nothing to do with a structural issue.”

Moore said the crew on the ship notified authorities that they had lost power, which allowed at least some traffic to be blocked before the collapse. “Between the mayday and collapse,” Moore said, “we had officials who were able to to begin to stop the flow of traffic so more cars were not on the bridge.”

Moore said the bridge was “fully up to code.”

The bridge is listed in “fair” condition on the Department of Transportation’s National Bridge Inventory.

Meanwhile, the disaster posed immediate transit challenges in a major shipping and transportation artery that could create long-term problems for the region.

The wreck will likely force the Port of Baltimore to close until the debris can be cleared from the water, disrupting shipping at one of the largest ports on the East Coast, the Baltimore Banner reported. Baltimore is among the country’s 20 biggest seaports in total tonnage and it ranks 10th in dry bulk shipments and 15th in container shipments, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

The port provided more than 15,000 direct jobs in 2018, according to the Maryland Department of Transportation.

Reporter Andres Picon contributed. 

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