Congressional panel debates who should foot the bill for rebuilding Baltimore bridge • Pennsylvania Capital-Star

Conservative members of Congress at a hearing on Wednesday raised questions about using federal dollars to pay for rebuilding a state tollway, as the head of the Federal Highway Administration reiterated that the Biden administration is seeking congressional approval to reimburse 100% of the costs of rebuilding the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore.

Congress has about six months left to adjust the federal share of costs to reconstruct the bridge before an automatic rate of 90% reimbursement kicks in, House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Sam Graves, a Missouri Republican, said at a hearing on the federal response to the March 26 collapse.

Early that morning, the container ship Dali lost power and struck the bridge, which collapsed into the Patapsco River and blocked access to the busy Port of Baltimore. Six people died.

Under the FHWA’s Emergency Relief Program, the federal government covers the first nine months of costs from a disaster.

Graves did not indicate whether he thought Congress should increase the federal cost-share. But Federal Highway Administrator Shailen Bhatt repeated President Joe Biden’s pledge that the federal government would cover all costs.

“The administration is asking Congress to join in demonstrating a commitment to aid in recovery efforts by authorizing a 100% federal cost-share for rebuilding the bridge, consistent with past catastrophic bridge collapses,” Bhatt told the panel.

The federal government reimbursed all the costs to rebuild the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis after it collapsed in 2007, Bhatt said.

The estimated cost of a rebuild for the Baltimore bridge is $1.7 billion to $1.9 billion.

The FHWA has asked permitting agencies to speed up approvals for a new bridge, noting that environmental and other reviews should consider that a bridge with a similar footprint was previously in the same location, Bhatt said.

Conservatives on the panel drew attention to the fact that the bridge, which was a toll facility on Maryland’s highway system, had never received federal funding. Revenue from the tolls go to the state, Pennsylvania Republican Scott Perry, noted.

Perry, a member of the far-right House Freedom Caucus, said the comparison to the Minneapolis bridge collapse was not apt because it had not been a toll bridge.

He asked if the federal government could recoup toll money collected on the bridge when it reopens.

“I hope you would consider a plan to reimburse the taxpayer under horrific debt right now, who can’t afford their groceries, their gas bills, their day care bills, for the cost of this bridge, for which one state has been receiving all the money for its entire existence, and apparently is going to receive all the money from the tolls for the rest of its existence,” Perry said.

Interstate system

Bhatt and some Democrats on the panel said that an intact interstate system benefits the entire country.

Georgia Democrat Hank Johnson asked Bhatt to explain the bridge’s connection to interstate commerce, noting that there may be “people in the country who are not inside the state of Maryland who resent having to pay for this bridge reconstruction.”

“What is so critically important for a transportation system is that you can drive from New York to Los Angeles across a system that is completely uniform,” Bhatt responded.

The highway system is connected to ports, which are also economic drivers, Bhatt said.

“This is not just an issue for Maryland,” he said. “It’s an issue for the Northeast Corridor and for our national economy.”

Legal action

Florida Republican Brian Mast asked Bhatt if the government was seeking reimbursement from any insurance policies or the Grace Ocean Private Ltd., which owned the ship, or shipping company Maersk, which chartered it.

Bhatt responded that the U.S. Justice Department was leading efforts to seek to recover those types of funds.

California Democrat John Garamendi said he supported 100% of costs being reimbursed by the federal government, but that the committee should “carefully structure” legislation so that any funds from insurance payments or legal judgments against the shipping company would flow back to the federal government.

Rebuilding issues

Reconstruction plans will be written and updated as the project progresses in the coming years, Bhatt said. The most recent timeline estimates construction could be finished in 2028 and traffic could resume that year or in 2029.

The bridge should be rebuilt to comply with current standards, Bhatt told ranking Democrat Rick Larsen of Washington. The original bridge, constructed during the 1970s, was a truss design, which has been replaced in recent years by cable-stayed bridges.

But federal law does not allow for “betterments” that did not exist on the original bridge to be added to the rebuild, Bhatt added.

Originally published at,by Jacob Fischler

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