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Bridge collapses in Pittsburgh, hours before Biden arrives to tout infrastructure package

Four people were hospitalized after a bridge collapsed in Pittsburgh on Jan. 28. (Video: The Washington Post)
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PITTSBURGH — A major bridge collapsed in this city just hours before President Biden arrived to tout his new infrastructure law, providing a vivid illustration of the country’s crumbling transportation system — but also highlighting that it will take years for many of the benefits to be felt.

The striking juxtaposition of a fallen bridge and a prescheduled presidential visit prompted Biden to make an impromptu stop at the accident site, where stranded and damaged cars were still visible along the fallen span. No one was killed when the bridge buckled around 6:30 a.m., officials said, though four people were hospitalized with injuries that were not life-threatening.

Biden warned that the country might not be so lucky next time. “We don’t need headlines saying that someone was killed when the next bridge collapses,” Biden said. “We saw today, when a bridge is in disrepair, it literally can threaten lives.”

Congress passed a bipartisan $1.2 trillion infrastructure package in November that included $27.5 billion to fix bridges, and since then Biden has visited spans in several states to pitch its benefits. But Andy Herrmann, a former president of the American Society of Civil Engineers, said the sum represents just a “down payment” toward what is needed across the country.

And it will likely be years before state and local officials can hire contractors and launch many of the projects, even though the infrastructure law seeks to ease the process by allowing the federal government to fully fund some projects rather than requiring matching funds, as is typical.

“We’re the city of bridges — and how many are out there?” said Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D), who also visited the site on Friday. “I hope it’s a wake-up call to the nation that we have to make these critical infrastructure investments and that people are afforded a safe drive to work.

After arriving in the area, Biden stopped at one end of the collapsed bridge, gazing across the snow-covered chasm where the span once stood. A red Port Authority bus that had been on the bridge when it collapsed was visible, and a pickup truck with a crumpled front end was sitting on top of the collapsed bridge deck, along with a black sedan and two other overturned cars.

After his tour of the site, Biden greeted police and fire officials in front of yellow earth-moving equipment parked along the side of the road. He put his hand on a police officer’s shoulder, saying, “These guys deserve an incredible amount of credit.”

“I’ve been coming to Pittsburgh a long time,” Biden added, noting that the city has more bridges than any in the world — “and we’re going to fix them all.”

Officials had earlier said there was “a strong smell of natural gas in the area,” and Pittsburgh Public Safety confirmed that a gas line had been cut. Nearby homes were briefly evacuated due to the gas smell, but residents were allowed to return after officials concluded it was safe. Police told Biden they were unsure whether the collapse was caused by an explosion in the gas line or whether the gas had leaked after the accident.

Five vehicles and a bus were on the Fern Hollow Bridge when it fell, officials said, and another vehicle was shown dangling at the edge of the chasm. The bridge is located in Frick Park and connected the Point Breeze, Regent Square and Squirrel Hill neighborhoods.

“The good thing at this point is that there are no fatalities, and we’re going to pray there are no fatalities,” Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey (D) told reporters Friday morning. “We were fortunate.”

Port Authority spokesman Adam Brandolph said a driver and two passengers were able to escape without injury. Rescuers rappelled about 150 feet into the gap, while other first responders formed a human chain to help pull multiple people from the bus, said Darryl Jones, chief of the Pittsburgh Bureau of Fire.

The cause of the collapse is under investigation, Jones said. The National Transportation Safety Board announced it was sending a team to begin an investigation into the bridge collapse.

Gainey said the bridge, which was built in 1970, was last inspected in September 2021. It was not immediately clear whether any issues were reported during the most recent inspection.

But the bridge, which carries about 14,500 vehicles a day, has been rated in “poor condition” dating back to 2011, according to the U.S. Transportation Department’s National Bridge Inventory. A September 2019 inspection found that both the superstructure and the deck were in poor condition. (The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation notes that a poor rating of a state bridge means that “deterioration of primary structural elements has advanced.”)

Still, it’s rare for a bridge to get to the point of collapse before it is shut down by inspectors.

“If a bridge is really in poor condition, they close it, because the most important thing is public safety,” Herrmann said. “It probably will shake people up, because our bridge inspection system is supposed to find these.”

Kevin Heaslip, a civil and environmental engineering professor at Virginia Tech, said a bridge rated in poor condition normally is not in immediate danger but is showing signs of wear. Had inspectors found any cause for concern in September, they would have taken action then, he said, suggesting that whatever caused the collapse had developed recently.

“DOTs are very conservative when it comes to these inspections,” Heaslip said. “If they think there’s any chance of a failure, they’re going to close the bridge.”

About 45,000 of the nation’s bridges are rated in poor condition, and Friday’s stark scene allowed Biden to make his frequent point about the country’s repair needs with unusual immediacy. He often frames the need to restore the country’s infrastructure as a critical part of the U.S. efforts to compete globally with other economic powers.

“We have been so far behind on infrastructure for so many years that it’s just mind-boggling,” Biden said.

The president promised the Fern Hollow Bridge would be rebuilt with funds from the infrastructure law, “along with thousands of other bridges in Pennsylvania and across the country, because it’s in our interest for our own safety’s sake.”

Biden on Friday also visited Mill 19, a former steel mill in Pittsburgh that’s been converted to a manufacturing research and development center. His trip to Pennsylvania, a key midterm battleground state, comes at a time when he is seeking to boost his poll numbers and promote his economic record.

Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) has announced he is retiring, giving the Democrats a shot at retaking the seat in their effort to hold onto their narrow advantage in the U.S. Senate. Fetterman is among those seeking the Democratic nomination in the race, along with Rep. Conor Lamb and State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta.

Analysis: The wide ripple effect of the bridge collapse in Pittsburgh

The collapse underscores the country’s challenge in dealing with a backlog of projects aimed at repairing, rehabilitating or replacing aging bridges. Crossings built as part of the construction boom after World War II were originally designed to last a half-century, and many are now well past that age.

In an analysis due to be released next week, the American Road and Transportation Builders Association has concluded that at current rates of repair, it would take 30 years to fix every bridge in the U.S. that is in poor condition. In all, the group found that 224,000 bridges need of some kind of repair, for a total cost of $260 billion.

Pennsylvania is among the hardest-hit states, with 3,200 bridges in poor condition, second only to Iowa, according to the analysis.

Given those needs, Pennsylvania is in line to receive $1.6 billion in bridge repair funds from the infrastructure law in the coming five years — a substantial amount, but far less than experts estimate is needed.

The Fern Hollow Bridge, located 10 miles east of downtown Pittsburgh, crossed over a popular walking trail in Frick Park. Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.), whose district is based in Pittsburgh, called the collapse “a major challenge for our community” that clearly illustrates why the infrastructure package was long overdue.

Gainey agreed. “We need it,” the mayor told reporters. “We could have had some significant injuries.”

Rich Fitzgerald, the county executive for Allegheny County, said authorities would be working with families in the area to make sure everyone was safe. “A lot of work is going to need to be done,” he said.

The bridge’s collapse caused alarm in the area Friday morning, as residents reported hearing a loud noise before 7 a.m.

Wendy Stroh was reading a John Grisham novel when she heard what she said sounded like “a huge snowplow plowing on tarmac without snow on it.” When she went outside, Stroh, who has lived near the bridge since 2013, realized what had happened, saying she was stunned and frightened.

“The locals and I have not fully processed this yet,” said Stroh, 62. “But your imagination starts to wander and you start to think, ‘Oh my goodness, are all bridges like this?’ This is going to make me think twice the next time I cross a bridge.”

Melissa Bakth heard what she described as “a monster noise” while she was still in bed, saying she initially thought the area was being bombed. Bakth, who has lived near the bridge for almost her entire life, broke down after thinking about what could have happened to her young daughter or the many other children who take school buses over the bridge every day.

The 43-year-old, tearing up, said she drives over the bridge at least six times a day, noting that there are three schools within a few blocks of the structure.

“That’s part of the reason I’m crying — it’s so overwhelming. I still can’t believe I was standing there with the entire bridge at my feet,” Bakth said in an interview. She added that she hoped the collapse would personalize the issue of infrastructure: “It’s not about the money and numbers. It’s about lives.”

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