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Biden still hopes to fully cover Key Bridge rebuilding costs, as channel reopens


Biden still hopes to fully cover Key Bridge rebuilding costs, as channel reopens

Jun 12, 2024 | 5:00 am ET
By Danielle J. Brown
Biden still hopes to fully cover Key Bridge rebuilding costs, as channel reopens
Salvage crews last week removed the final large steel truss from the Francis Scott Key Bridge from the Patapsco River, clearing the way to fully reopen the Fort McHenry Federal Channel to the Port of Baltimore. Photo by Bobby Petty/U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

The Biden administration remains committed to having the federal government pay 100% of the cost to replace the Francis Scott Key Bridge, U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a call with reporters Tuesday.

“President Biden was very clear, and the Maryland delegation is leading a process in Congress to make sure that it is 100% eligible,” Buttigieg told reporters. “In the past, there has sometimes been a 90% threshold. But 100% is both the delegation and the administration’s view.”

His comments come as state and federal officials are celebrating Monday’s full reopening of the Fort McHenry Federal Channel, allowing cargo ships to reach the Port of Baltimore.

The reopening came a little more than two months after the container ship Dali rammed the bridge and sent it tumbling into the Patapsco River. The March 26 collision killed six construction workers who were on the bridge at the time, and severed a major East Coast highway in addition to blocking shipping to the port.

Replacing the bridge will likely be much more involved, and much costlier, than reopening the shipping channel. Initial estimates are that the project could take years and cost upwards of $1.7 billion.

Biden said on the day of the Dali collision that it was “his intention that the federal government will pay for the entire cost of reconstructing the bridge” and that U.S. Congress would support his effort. He will need congressional approval in order for the feds to fully fund bridge reconstruction, which has yet to come.

Buttigieg said Tuesday that the federal commitment to fully cover the bridge replacement did not mean that taxpayers would necessarily foot the entire bill. In May, the Maryland Board of Public Works hired five private law firms to represent the state in a potentially complicated legal fight as it seeks compensation for the collapsed span, and Buttigieg said federal funding would not affect any compensation won in court.

“Again, that does not rule out recoveries for the taxpayer from any private party that is held liable or accountable, insurance, litigation, any of that,” Buttigieg said.

The U.S. Department of Transportation already released $60 million to the state in emergency relief funding “as down payment on the work ahead,” Buttigieg said. He said additional funds would be sent to the state through a reimbursement system.

“Emergency relief funding is structured on a reimbursement basis, and we have quick-release ability to get those first dollars flowing. That’s what the $60 million was about,” Buttigieg said. “But we know that those additional bills will come in.”

Preliminary estimates currently project total costs to replace the bridge will be between $1.7 and $1.9 billion.

Meanwhile, operations to clear the channel have already cost arms of the federal government close to $90 million.

Army Corps of Engineers Maj. Gen. Butch Graham said on Tuesday’s call that the corps had already invoiced some $64 million for its salvage efforts, and there is “more work to do.” U.S. Coast Guard Rear Adm. Shannon Gilreath said that its recovery efforts have cost about $24 million.

Buttigieg said that the port reopening showed “extraordinary coordination and convening of partners” in federal, state and local agencies.

“We recognize that there’s a long road ahead, when it comes to the bridge reconstruction, but this is a key milestone and an extraordinary moment,” Buttigieg said.

Buttigieg is expected to join Gov. Wes Moore (D) and other state and federal officials at a news conference Wednesday to celebrate the reopening of the channel.