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The Fern Hollow Bridge, flagged by inspectors as being in poor condition, buckled, injuring 10 people.
For Ed Gainey, who became mayor of Pittsburgh earlier this month, Friday promised to be a big day. President Biden would be flying to the city to talk about infrastructure, and Gainey would be among the people to welcome him to the City of Bridges.
But before Biden even got on the plane, a busy bridge often used by commuters, collapsed. An accordion-style Port Authority bus was among the vehicles traveling across the Fern Hollow Bridge when it buckled. Rescue crews had to rappel down to rescue people who were on the bridge as it fell. Ten people were hurt, but no deaths were reported.
“The good thing right now is that there were no fatalities. We’re going to pray that there is no fatalities,” Gainey told reporters near the snowy wreckage. “We were fortunate.”
The collapse caused a natural gas leak, but Peoples Natural Gas stopped the leak, Gainey told reporters.
Biden visited the site of the bridge collapse before making his previously scheduled appearances.
"We're going to rebuild that bridge, along with thousands of others in Pennsylvania and across the country," Biden said. "It's in our interest, for our own safety's sake. And it generates commerce in a way we can't do now."
The president also commended Gainey for doing a "hell of a job" as mayor.
The sudden failure of the 52-year-old bridge in a major city, of course, highlighted the poor condition of many key infrastructure assets throughout the country.
Pennsylvania, in particular, has long struggled to maintain its many bridges. With hilly terrain and fiscally strained governments, the state has the second-most structurally deficient bridges of any state (trailing only Iowa). Nearly 15% of its bridges were structurally deficient, the fifth-highest rate of any state, according to a 2020 report by the American Road & Transportation Builders Association.
Inspectors flagged the Fern Hollow Bridge for being in poor condition for several years.
Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman, a Democrat, told reporters that Friday’s bridge collapse underscored the need for more infrastructure work, like that included in the national infrastructure law that Biden signed late last year.
“This is a horrible way to underscore just how critical our infrastructure needs are in this country because this is a vital artery in the Pittsburgh area,” Fetterman said.
Bridge collapses, like one on a Minneapolis highway in 2007 or over the Skagit River in Washington in 2013, have galvanized political efforts to find more funding for infrastructure improvements. But in the case of the Minneapolis bridge failure, the National Transportation Safety Board later found that the reason for the collapse was a design failure, not inadequate maintenance.
Editor's note: This story was updated to include comments from President Biden's afternoon address in Pittsburgh.
Daniel C. Vock is a senior reporter for Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.
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