‘It can threaten lives:’ Biden touts infrastructure law, tours site of Pittsburgh bridge collapse

·6 min read
President Joe Biden speaks about the importance of infrastructure funding in Pittsburgh on Jan. 28, 2022, shortly after touring the site of a bridge collapse in Frick Park earlier in the day.
President Joe Biden speaks about the importance of infrastructure funding in Pittsburgh on Jan. 28, 2022, shortly after touring the site of a bridge collapse in Frick Park earlier in the day.

PITTSBURGH — President Joe Biden promoted his administration’s “historic” investment in roads and bridges Friday, shortly after touring the site of a powerful bridge collapse on the city’s East End.

Biden’s pre-planned visit to Carnegie Mellon University’s Mill 19 facility in Hazelwood was underscored by the dramatic bridge collapse near Pittsburgh’s Frick Park Friday morning. Roughly 14,500 vehicles cross that thoroughfare each day, a fact Biden alluded to in his speech highlighting the nation’s 45,000 structurally deficient bridges – more than 3,300 in Pennsylvania.

The president, joined by elected officials including U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Scranton, U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb, D-17, Gov. Tom Wolf and Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, said his $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill will help prevent disasters like the one in Frick Park; his administration is acting fast to repair the thousands of crumbling roads and bridges nationwide, he said. In Allegheny County alone, more than 140, and as many as 175, need repair.

"We saw today, when a bridge is in disrepair, it literally can threaten lives," Biden said. No one was seriously injured when the Fern Hollow Bridge gave way, according to public safety officials, but four were reportedly sent to the hospital for their injuries.

"We've got to get on with it. We've got to move," Biden said. "We don't need headlines saying that someone was killed when the next bridge collapses."

Pennsylvania is slated to receive $1.6 billion to repair and restore aging bridges, he said, adding that his administration's nationwide investment in bridges is the largest since President Dwight D. Eisenhower launched the interstate highway system.

JoJo Burgess, a member of United Steelworkers Local 1557, introduces President Joe Biden in Pittsburgh Friday afternoon.
JoJo Burgess, a member of United Steelworkers Local 1557, introduces President Joe Biden in Pittsburgh Friday afternoon.

"This is the first time in the country's history that we dedicated a national program to repair and upgrade bridges," Biden said.

The president said he immediately reached out to Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey after learning of the collapse. A gas leak caused by the failure forced some nearby residents to evacuate Friday, with service restored the same day. The cause of the collapse is still under investigation.

"We're going to rebuild that bridge, along with thousands of other bridges in Pennsylvania and across the country, because it's in our interests for our own safety's sake, and it generates commerce in a way we can't do now,” the president said.

During his second presidential visit to Pittsburgh, the Scranton native spoke of rebuilding American manufacturing jobs, fortifying labor unions and supporting working-class families.

He reminisced about Pittsburgh's celebrated industrial past when “Pennsylvania generated as much steel as Germany, Japan and Italy combined right here in the City of Pittsburgh,” and promised to help restore the jobs lost when the industry crumbled.

“We can’t slow down now," Biden said. "We know what happens when we stop investing in the future in a place like Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh also knows the consequences when we ignore the backbone and fail to invest in ourselves...fail to invest in our people. Some of you have been around long enough to remember how this city lost 100,000 steel jobs between 1970 and 1990.”

After discussing the importance of semiconductors in modern manufacturing, Biden talked about a deal for battery-powered locomotives built by Pittsburgh-based Wabtec Corp. with batteries from General Motors.

More: Bridge collapses in Pittsburgh, injuring 10, stranding bus and other vehicles

Biden also vowed to ease the burden on working families and help those who are unable to provide for their children.

"It strips you of your dignity, dammit!” an emotional Biden said of families who may not be able to afford their child's life-saving health care. “Can you imagine looking at your child, you know what they need and (you’re) not be able to do it?”

JoJo Burgess, a member of United Steelworkers Local 1557, introduced Biden Friday afternoon. The son of two former steelworkers and a Desert Storm veteran, Burgess lauded the infrastructure package, calling it “long overdue” for union workers in the area.

“Manufacturing in this county will benefit from it,” he said.

Biden, toward the end of his speech, mentioned the more than $857 million in infrastructure spending awarded last week to complete the aging Montgomery Locks in Beaver County. The $2.6 billion Upper Ohio Navigation project involves replacing and expanding chambers at the Emsworth, Dashields and Montgomery locks and dams along the Ohio River.

More: Live updates: Biden visits Pittsburgh in wake of bridge collapse to talk infrastructure

A Pittsburgh police car blocked a road leading to the site of a bridge collapse in the city's Frick Park on Friday.
A Pittsburgh police car blocked a road leading to the site of a bridge collapse in the city's Frick Park on Friday.

Native perspective: Patrick O'Shea: Pittsburgh bridge collapse shows deficient infrastructure needs to be addressed

The "unprecedented" funding will be used to complete work on Industry’s Montgomery Locks, built in the 1930s and now exhibiting significant deterioration. A catastrophic failure at the site would halt river traffic and likely hamper work at Shell’s ethane cracker plant nearby. The Upper Ohio River locks are estimated to facilitate the transport of 15 to 20 million tons of commodities annually in the next 50 years.

“Bob Casey’s been on my back about this for so long...As we get this Montgomery Lock project done, I think we should call it the ‘Casey Lock,’” Biden remarked, jokingly.

Sen. Casey, during his speech Friday, said the funding will help create a future families can look forward to.

“This is a day to look toward that future," he said. "The future for young children in this neighborhood, this city, this country and this region. Today is a day to focus on tomorrow."

Residents describe the Pittsburgh bridge collapse

Antonio Richards, 34, of Pittsburgh's Point Breeze neighborhood said his 65-year-old aunt lives just blocks away from where the bridge fell early Friday.

“She called me in a panic this morning,” he said. “She and I walk and drive across that bridge many times a week. She heard the rumbles as it collapsed, I guess, and called me thinking maybe a pipeline exploded or something. It was pretty scary. I’m honestly glad it was just this.”

Taiji Nelson with the Sunrise Movement Pittsburgh held a sign reading, “Pittsburgh supports Build Back Better” outside the scene for hours Friday morning. Nelson worked at the Frick Environmental Center for a decade, he said.

A man hold a sign supporting President Joe Biden's Build Back Better plan at the scene of the Frick Park bridge collapse on Friday.
A man hold a sign supporting President Joe Biden's Build Back Better plan at the scene of the Frick Park bridge collapse on Friday.

“I drove over this bridge all the time,” Nelson said. “My brother just bought a house in Pittsburgh, I was recommending he move to this neighborhood. So, this could’ve been me, people I love.

"We can’t afford to wait to invest in our cities. I’m here because I believe we can make big investments in infrastructure, but also I know that investments in infrastructure are a way to solve the climate crisis,” he said.

Another person at the scene Friday, Ana Barrett, lives on the city’s South Side and said she regularly hikes the Frick Park trails.

“It could’ve easily been me,” she said.

More: Montgomery Locks project to be completed with $857 million federal boost

Reporter J.D. Prose contributed to this report.

This story has been updated with developing information.

This article originally appeared on Beaver County Times: Biden touts infrastructure law in Pittsburgh after bridge collapse