Connecting state and local government leaders
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said during his visit Tuesday that a 2017 bridge collapse in Georgia may provide a roadmap for how to rebuild quickly. A timetable for building a replacement set to be released Wednesday will depend on many factors, including finding the necessary materials.
Pennsylvania officials face enormous hurdles in rebuilding a key segment of Interstate 95 in Philadelphia after part of the highway collapsed Sunday, but they’ll be drawing on lessons from similar incidents that have caused major disruptions in recent years.
Contractors are already busy dismantling the roadway that was destroyed when a truck carrying 8,500 gallons of gasoline caught fire this weekend. The intense heat from the blaze led to the partial collapse of an overpass carrying northbound lanes of the interstate and significantly damaged the southbound lanes as well.
The incident takes out of service a section of highway that carries 160,000 vehicles a day, including nearly 13,000 trucks. The interstate connects most of the Eastern Seaboard, from Maine to Miami, meaning the Philadelphia closure could have ripple effects throughout the region’s roads and economy.
But federal, state and local officials are drawing on experiences from similar incidents—such as the collapse of the Fern Hollow bridge in Pittsburgh last year or a fire that brought down part of Interstate 85 in Georgia in 2017—to develop their plans for the current crisis.
“You can’t think in series. You have to think in parallel,” said Maria Lehman, the president of the American Society of Civil Engineers, who managed emergency bridge repairs as a county public works commissioner in the Buffalo, N.Y., area and as the acting director of the New York State Thruway Authority.
“Time becomes a critical factor,” she said. “It’s just a different way of thinking about how to put a project out that you normally do. Very few engineers who haven’t played a role in an emergency [work that way]. That’s not their go-to space.”
Mike Carroll, the Pennsylvania secretary of transportation, said Tuesday that his agency is tackling several plans at once. “As busy as we are here with the demolition, we are equally as busy in Harrisburg and in Camp Prussia relative to the replacement plan, which we are going to be prepared to announce to you tomorrow,” he told reporters.
Carroll stressed that the state Department of Transportation is doing everything it can to replace the overpass quickly. It hired a contractor that was already working near the site on a different project to take over the demolition process, something the state could do without the normal bidding process because it was part of an emergency response. Crews are already working on the site “24/7,” he said.
Gov. Josh Shapiro signed a disaster declaration to speed up the recovery process. The formal declaration allows the state to receive federal money for infrastructure emergencies and to waive many standard procedures that could slow the response. The 2021 infrastructure law championed by President Joe Biden includes an increase in emergency relief money that the federal government can provide to states in crises.
One major factor in determining how long construction will take is the availability of materials, Lehman said. With recent supply chain disruptions, it can take eight to 12 months to get structural steel for a project, so Pennsylvania officials will have to determine if they can divert steel from other projects or use replacement materials like tub girders or precast concrete.
“A normal job is going to be driven by cost. What’s the most cost effective? But if I have a need for speed, the question is: What is the quickest for me to get delivered and put into place?” Lehman explained. Getting the materials has a bigger impact on the timeframe than construction itself, she said, because agencies can hire more people to rebuild. But the workers can’t do anything without the materials.
Ticking off learnings from past incidents, Lehman said that the agreements with contractors will likely include incentives for finishing early, just as they would include penalties for going over schedule.
Communication with the public becomes a major priority, as does coordinating with the myriad government agencies that play a role in the recovery plan. Teams that would normally meet once a week instead have stand-up check-ins twice a day, Lehman said.
“It helps when you have a team that's willing to leave all the egos at the door and figure out the problem and solve it,” she said. “Pennsylvania did this with Fern Hollow. They met with the contracting community, they met with the labor unions, they met with [suppliers] to figure out the best path forward. That’s what they’re doing right now. And they’ll be doing that probably for a week or two, and then they’re going to be off to the races.”
And top leaders have to be involved with all that coordination.
“Anytime there’s a bridge collapse, the governor’s front and center. Quite frankly, you’re going to probably have [Transportation] Secretary [Pete] Buttigieg involved as well,” Lehman predicted before Buttigieg announced he would visit the site Tuesday.
During his visit, Buttigieg acknowledged that public expectations of leaders in these kinds of emergencies had changed. The secretary faced criticism for not heading sooner to the scene of a train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, this February.
“I decided to break from the precedent, the norm, that generally transportation secretaries don’t go to active response sites,” he said amid the noise of jackhammers dismantling the damaged overpass. “What I found was important— especially when you found all the politicization and misinformation that the people of East Palestine had to deal with—is that we’re just in a new world in terms of the importance of presence to make sure everybody understands what is happening.”
Buttigieg said his agency had been looking back at the Georgia bridge collapse for lessons on how to proceed with the Philadelphia project. After the section of I-85 collapsed in 2017, construction crews replaced it in 44 days, or a month ahead of schedule. Georgia’s transportation department began working with the contractor almost as soon as the bridge collapsed. The state offered the company incentives of up to $3.1 million to finish work early.
On Tuesday, Buttigieg stressed that the situations in Philadelphia and Atlanta were different from the sudden collapse of bridges in places like Fern Hollow and Minneapolis in 2007.
“I do want to emphasize that there have been cases in years past where sections of highway or a bridge collapsed in broad daylight seemingly at random. Of course, this is not that. This was an enormously intense fire underneath a structure that my understanding was relatively new in its construction. The result of that much heat, of that much fuel burning, was of course what compromised this structure,” he said.
Daniel C. Vock is a senior reporter for Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.