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Buttigieg defends effort to fix ailing bridges across the country

The secretary of transportation responds to a Scripps News investigation that found 14,000 bridges across the U.S. left in disrepair.
Buttigieg responds to Scripps News investigation into ailing bridges
Posted at 10:59 AM, Aug 22, 2023

A massive backlog of broken bridges means many aging structures needing repair won’t be fixed anytime soon, said U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg in an interview with Scripps News. 

He linked the slow pace of repairs to the government underfunding infrastructure in the decades leading up to the Biden administration.  

“Congress after Congress, administration after administration, we didn't see the kind of major investment that was really needed,” said Buttigieg, responding to a Scripps News investigation that found more than 14,000 bridges — carrying 46 million vehicles a day — have been listed in poor condition for at least 10 years by the Federal Highway Administration. 

SEE MORE: Thousands of bridges left behind in race to rebuild infrastructure

“The important thing is right now we are moving it in the right direction so that instead of getting worse, it's getting better,” Buttigieg said. 

The Biden administration has supported billions of dollars in new funding for bridge projects through legislation including the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the Inflation Reduction Act and pandemic relief aid.  

Funds are distributed in a variety of ways, with a mixture of federal, state and local agencies ultimately deciding which bridges get fixed. The Department of Transportation says those efforts have addressed more than 6,400 deteriorating bridges and counting.  

That still leaves thousands of bridges in need with no immediate funding source.  

The list of bridges listed in fair or poor condition had been growing, but it’s too early to know whether the Biden administration’s efforts have reversed the trend. 

Buttigieg said the country is just at the beginning of what he calls an “infrastructure decade” that includes a focus on rebuilding bridges. 

“We're taking historically large steps, but the work of reversing probably 40, 50 years of degradation or underinvestment is going to be more than a couple of years' work,” Buttigieg said. 

A report from the Congressional Research Service says it could take 20 years to eliminate the backlog of bad bridges, but only if Congress were to maintain high spending levels. 

That’s far from likely after infrastructure funding efforts passed with slim majorities amid opposition from most Republicans, who questioned the cost.

Pittsburgh offered a horrifying example of what can happen when a bridge is left in a state of disrepair for too long. The Fern Hollow Bridge collapsed under the weight of snow in January 2022, injuring 10 people.  

The National Transportation Safety Board has not finished its investigation of the incident but says years of unaddressed corrosion on the supports was likely a factor.  

A year and a half after the bridge fell, and with the memory of the disaster still fresh, the Scripps News investigative team still found other bridges in Pittsburgh crumbling when touched. 

SEE MORE: Cities seek funding to avoid public transit 'death spiral'

Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey, an ally of President Biden, told Scripps News that the city needs more money from Washington to keep bridges usable and safe.

“Funding is a major issue,” Gainey said. “I'm so fortunate that President Biden has focused on a bipartisan infrastructure bill, but the reality is we need more.” 

Asked to respond to Gainey’s frustrations, Buttigieg defended the pace of bridge work. 

“What we have right now is the largest investment in roads and bridges since the Eisenhower administration,” Buttigieg said. "And it's a level of funding that is, frankly, testing how much the American economy can actually absorb, making sure we have the raw materials for this, making sure that we have the workforce ready to do this.”   

Buttigieg stood by a promise President Biden made at the scene of the Fern Hollow collapse to fix all of the nation’s ailing bridges. 

“That’s the vision,” Buttigieg said. “The good news is we're underway on it now, and yes, there's a long way to go.” 

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