Trillion-dollar infrastructure ambitions converge on a decaying New Hampshire bridge

Built in 1939, the Pemigewasset River Bridge in Woodstock, N.H., is just three years older than President Biden, who stood on the 180-foot span on Tuesday to tout the $1.2 trillion infrastructure package he signed into law the day before.

Biden was having a good day, in a celebratory mood from the previous day’s signing, which marked the biggest accomplishment of his presidency. He joked with members of the New Hampshire delegation, who stood nearby, bundled against the November cold.

The bridge, on the other hand, has seen much better days. In 2013 it earned the inglorious distinction of being placed on a list of “structurally deficient” bridges, of which there are now 215 in New Hampshire.

President Biden stands at a podium set up on a bridge in Woodstock, New Hampshire.
President Biden at the Pemigewasset River Bridge in Woodstock, N.H., on Tuesday. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Which is precisely why Biden showed up at the old bridge as his administration prepares to begin sending funds from the infrastructure bill to states. The president is acutely aware that the bill will ultimately be judged not on its ambitions, but by how completely those ambitions are realized — and how well he and his top deputies explain to the American people what they are doing with all that money, and why.

“This isn’t esoteric,” Biden said at one point in his remarks. “This isn’t some gigantic bill...” He paused, realizing that at more than a trillion dollars, the bill was not exactly modest. “It is, but it is about what happens to ordinary people.”

By highlighting the plight of the decaying Pemigewasset River Bridge on Tuesday, Biden sought to remind those very ordinary people that beyond complex parliamentary maneuvers in Washington and the bluster of Manhattan-bound cable news pundits, he is intent on “taking care of their legitimate needs.”

Critics say the massive spending package could lead to inflation. Others say it does not do nearly enough to address climate change. At the same time, it is by far the biggest federal outlay to address the nation’s deteriorating physical infrastructure in decades.

“This is real,” Biden said, describing the 10-mile detour a fire truck may have to take if the Pemigewasset River Bridge is rendered unusable. “This is real stuff.”

Decay is certainly visible in New Hampshire, where harsh winters have an especially corrosive effect. Although it is only mid-November, a light snow fell as Biden spoke on Tuesday. The state has a C- grade from the American Society of Civil Engineers. That’s only slightly worse than the C that ASCE awards to the nation’s bridges overall, of which it has found that 42 percent are more than half a century old.

If politics is the art of the possible, then Biden’s argument on Tuesday was that it is indeed possible to improve the lives of Americans by fixing bridges like the modest one across the Pemigewasset River. “Your life is going to change for the better,” Biden said. “And that’s literal.”

President Biden stands at a podium set up on a bridge along New Hampshire Route 175. A sign behind him reads: Weight limit 20 tons.
President Biden visits a bridge along New Hampshire Route 175 on Tuesday. (John Tully/Getty Images)

He described how the bridge had grown weaker with age, so that its weight limit had been cut in half, from 40 tons to 20 tons, making crossing the river potentially difficult for trucks hauling lumber or concrete. The state had already invested $250,000 on “Band-Aid repairs,” Biden pointed out, and was installing steel plates to bolster the deck, a temporary solution that would be “bumpy for drivers, difficult for snowplows” and unsafe for cyclists.

“Now, when that’s done, the bridge may need even more weight restrictions,” Biden said, sounding — intentionally — less like the leader of the free world than a local transportation official.

The president added that 700 miles of New Hampshire highways in “poor condition” amounted to an extra $476 in vehicle-related expenses per person per year in the state.

Those roads also have a C- grade from ASCE.

“You’ll be safer, you’ll get to where you’re going faster and you’ll save money,” Biden said of the infrastructure upgrades coming to New Hampshire, adding that the federal spending would also foster the creation of well-paying jobs with union protections.

As far as presidential promises go, it was decidedly more mundane than the New Frontier of John F. Kennedy, or, for that matter, some of Biden’s soaring rhetoric. But soaring rhetoric doesn’t fix potholes, and the president seems to recognize as much.