Biden Administration Approves Initial $60 Million for Key Bridge Response

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, at podium, accompanied by officials including Maryland Gov. Wes Moore (L) and Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., (R) speaks during a news conference near the scene where a container ship collided with a support on the Francis Scott Key Bridge, in Dundalk, Md., Tuesday. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

BALTIMORE (The Baltimore Sun/TNS) — Gov. Wes Moore’s administration on Thursday requested an initial $60 million in federal funds to cover preliminary costs for mobilization, operations and debris recovery following the Francis Scott Key Bridge collision, and the Biden administration approved the funding hours later.

Damage assessments were ongoing and a full cost estimate was still not possible, Maryland Transportation Secretary Paul Wiedefeld wrote in a letter to the Federal Highway Administration. He asked for a “quick release” of the funds to allow officials to keep moving quickly on debris removal, restoring traffic operations and emergency construction.

“The State of Maryland’s budget for emergencies is limited and unable to fund an emergency of this magnitude,” Wiedefeld wrote.

The Key Bridge collapsed early Tuesday when a container ship struck a support column, killing six men and unleashing a vigorous recovery effort by state and federal officials.

President Joe Biden has pledged for the federal government to pay for the cleanup and rebuilding process, which experts say could ultimately take a decade or more.

In a briefing Thursday before the approval of the funds was announced, Biden press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre reiterated the president’s intention to “move heaven and earth to reopen the port and rebuild the bridge as soon as humanly possible.”

That process, however, will be complicated. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is leading the effort to remove the remnants of the bridge, some of which remains on the front of the ship, forcing the bow to sit on the bottom of the river.

Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen said Wednesday the preliminary estimates for clearing the channel were $40 million to $50 million. He said the funds would be immediately available and come from the Corps’ budget typically used for dredging operations.

Another indeterminate amount for rebuilding the bridge will likely come from federal emergency relief funds, which Moore’s administration officially requested in a separate letter Wednesday.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said Wednesday that will provide immediate access to an account that has roughly $950 million available.

Congressional approval will likely be necessary to add to that amount when the funds are depleted, as well as to ensure Maryland isn’t on the hook for covering 10% of the costs — a requirement when tapping such funds, Van Hollen said.

Officials have also discussed possible complications that could come with using the federal funds, like limiting tolling on the future bridge. Wiedefeld acknowledged those discussions in the letter Wednesday.

“In accordance with our conversations, receipt of Emergency Relief funds, through Maryland State Highway Administration, will not impact the ability of the Maryland Transportation Authority to continue to collect tolls for the Francis Scott Key Bridge and its approaches in the future when reconstructed,” Wiedefeld wrote.

State lawmakers are discussing the need of additional assistance — potentially in the form of financial relief for small businesses and port workers — before the annual Maryland General Assembly session ends April 8.

Meanwhile, Biden’s pledge has offset immediate concerns that the incident will add significantly to the state’s $3.3 billion, six-year transportation funding shortfall. The funding issue has already put at risk upcoming projects around bridge and road repair, new construction and a long list of transportation services — and a path to resolving the shortfall is the last major hang-up in state lawmakers’ budget negotiations.

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