President Biden made a trip to Pittsburgh on Thursday to visit the Fern Hollow Bridge, which collapsed earlier this year, as officials work to reopen the crossing before the end of the year.
It concludes a flurry of presidential bridge visits over the past year. It was Biden’s second stop on this particular span. His first visit came shortly after the bridge collapsed in January, when he was scheduled to give a speech elsewhere in the city. Just a few months earlier, Biden visited another dilapidated bridge, this one in New Hampshire, a day after signing his bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act on Nov. 15.
Biden’s staff, particularly Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, have also visited bridges around the country in recent months in an effort to put bridge repair front and center to show how infrastructure law funds are being spent.
The visits also come as experts continue to sound the alarm bells about America’s bridge problem. A 2021 report found that there are more than 46,000 “structurally deficient” bridges around the country, which are nevertheless crossed 178 million times each day.
“It should never have come to this,” Biden said Thursday from the Fern Hollow Bridge construction site about the state of the nation’s infrastructure, adding that the new law means “we’re finally getting to it.”
$40 billion for bridges
Biden aides point out that installing bridges not only affects the lives and safety of everyday drivers, but will also help improve contractions in the hampered supply chain. Road funding for the coming year includes another big chunk set aside for bridges, with $5.5 billion going to the Department of Transportation’s Bridge Formula Program for fiscal year 2023 (which begins in November). The money matches 2022 funding levels, but represents a 391% jump over 2021 — before the law took effect.
A 2021 infrastructure report from the American Society of Civil Engineers highlighted the serious problem: Of the more than 617,000 bridges in the United States, 46,154 of them—or 7.5%—are classified as structurally deficient. Civil engineers also estimate that $125 billion is needed to fix America’s bridge repair backlog, underscoring how much additional investment is likely to be needed beyond the Infrastructure Act in the coming years.
Biden officials have touted that money from the law has already supported repairs on more than 2,400 bridges in its first year, with projects from Illinois to Alabama. The money to repair the Fern Hollow Bridge didn’t come directly from the new law, but Biden says funding from the law allowed Pennsylvania government to move quickly and support a quick rebuild of the bridge without affecting other projects in the pipeline.
The politics of bridges
Biden’s trip this week also has an undeniable political aspect — and not just because Thursday’s Pennsylvania trip also included a stop in Philadelphia to campaign for fellow Democrat John Fetterman, who is currently neck-and-neck with Republican Mehmet Oz in one of the highest profile Senate races. in the nation.
The bridge issue is sure to resonate in the state, which according to the White House has the second most dilapidated bridges in the country after only Iowa.
“Pittsburgh is a city of bridges, but too many of them are in bad shape like this bridge behind me before it collapsed,” Biden said during Thursday’s event as Fetterman looked on. The speech repeatedly touched on politics, including a criticism of Republicans who voted against the infrastructure bill but are now, according to Biden, “quietly and privately sending me letters” asking for money.
The bridge stops are just one example of Biden trumpeting how the infrastructure money is being spent. Previous announcements have focused on money for airport terminals, roads, rural broadband efforts, ports and others.
But the impact of such PR efforts ahead of November’s midterm elections has been mixed at best. A notable poll from this summer by the think tank Third Way and Impact Research found that only 24 percent of voters were even aware that the bipartisan infrastructure bill had passed.
President Obama faced similar challenges when officials repeatedly tried to publicize funding for “shovel-ready” projects funded by a 2008 stimulus law. Officials then went so far as to put up signs around the country promoting projects, including many bridges . But in the end, Democrats suffered heavy midterm losses in 2010.
This time, Biden officials say they are focused on the longer term. As Buttigieg said recently, the bridge projects across the country will benefit the American economy for generations.
And while it’s still unclear how much it will help Democrats in November, Biden has signaled that the bridge visits won’t stop anytime soon.
“I’ll be back to go over this sucker,” he promised Thursday.
Ben Werschkul is the Washington correspondent for Yahoo Finance.
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