Infrastructure bonanza might not head off future bridge collapses

·4 min read
Andrew Harnik/AP Photo

Within hours of Friday's early morning bridge collapse in Pittsburgh, Democrats were touting the recently enacted infrastructure law’s billionss of dollars as the remedy for the country’s decrepit infrastructure.

But lack of money isn't necessarily what's kept the bridge over Frick Park on the list of spans rated in "poor" condition since it landed there more than a decade ago. And President Joe Biden’s signature infrastructure legislation offers no guarantees that states will spend their share of the law’s $550 billion in new federal money on the bridges that most need help.

The reason: States are largely in the driver’s seat in deciding where the money goes.

Every year, the federal government funnels infrastructure money to states to spend on their roads, bridges and transit systems. But beyond broad categories — for instance, a specific pot of money allocated for bridge work — states have wide latitude to spend as they see fit.

Biden, who had already been scheduled to visit Pittsburgh when the bridge fell, used Friday's collapse to highlight the need to fund repairs. The fact that nobody was killed or seriously injured gave Democrats the freedom to talk policy while the scene was still being cleared.

"The next time, we don’t need headlines saying someone was killed in a bridge collapse. When a bridge is in disrepair it can threaten lives," Biden said during his speech in Pittsburgh.

Talking up the new law, he said: "We finally got it done, a bipartisan infrastructure law in our nation’s bridges. This is the first time in the country’s history that we’ve dedicated a national program to repair and upgrade bridges."

Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.), who represents the area where the collapse took place, called the collapse a "tragic example of why the infrastructure bill Congress just passed is needed. We should consistently be investing MORE in our infrastructure so our bridges and other public works don’t reach this point of disrepair."

In fiscal 2019 alone, Pennsylvaniareceived $1.77 billion in federal funds for its transportation needs. The state isexpected to receive an additional $4 billion from the infrastructure law Congress enacted last year.

But that money includes few strings that would force states to fix their existing transportation projects, rather than building new ones. Congress also elected not to change the way those funds are distributed to states, allowing them to spend based on their own priorities.

“Simply giving states more money is no guarantee it will be spent well, including on system repair,” said Kevin DeGood, director of infrastructure policy for the Center for American Progress. “Washington needs to hold states accountable for their investment decisions.”

Biden has repeatedly said he prefers a "fix it first" approach, and in fact the infrastructure bill that Democrats in the House originally produced included those principles — such as requiring states that want to expand their highways to first show they've kept their infrastructure maintained. But that focus fell out of the bill by the time Biden eventually signed it.

Matt Casale, who oversees PIRG's toxics, transportation and zero waste campaigns, said the biggest takeaway from the collapse from a federal policy perspective is that existing bridges must be fixed first before new projects are funded.

“While we have spent billions of dollars building new highway infrastructure, this bridge, like too many others across the United States, has lingered in poor condition for too long,” Casale said. He said the new law “provides us with an opportunity to correct this course and finally build a safer transportation system for all Americans..”

Earlier this month, the Biden administration rolled out its bridge repair and replacement program in Philadelphia, where a major bridge was closed to traffic last year after an inspection showed a critical steel connection was 75 percent deteriorated.

The program will send nearly $27.5 billion out by formula in the single largest dedicated bridge investment in the United States since the construction of the Interstate Highway System.

"We're going to rebuild that bridge along with thousands of other bridges in Pennsylvania and across the country," Biden said Friday. "That’s part of how we’re going to build a better America."