Emergency funds help Francis Scott Key Bridge cleanup get underway

April 3, 2024

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has made $60 million in “quick release” emergency relief funds available to the Maryland Department of Transportation to rebuild the Francis Scott Key Bridge after a cargo container ship struck the bridge March 26.

The funds will serve as a down payment toward initial costs. Additional FHWA Emergency Relief Program funds will be made available as work continues, the DOT said.

The DOT made the money available within hours of receiving the request.

The FHWA’s Emergency Relief Program (ER) is authorized by Congress with $100 million to aid in reconstructing highways that are damaged in natural disasters or due to catastrophic failures from an external cause. Through the ER program, the highway administration can quickly release funds in response to disasters.

A $100 million-per-state-event cap was in place prior to 2012. However, the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act, enacted that year, eliminated the cap. Since then, Congress has periodically provided additional funds for the ER program through supplemental appropriations.

“These ‘quick release’ Emergency Relief funds are an initial installment to help restore essential transportation,” the DOT said. “Additional funds needed for the rebuilding of the bridge will be supported by the Emergency Relief program through nationwide funding allocations.

“FHWA is also providing technical assistance, conducting site assessments, and administering emergency contracts for the new bridge.”

Funding for the program is administered separately from funding used to pay for other planned improvements.

Gov. Wes Moore and the Maryland Department of Transportation took necessary steps to secure the emergency funding, the DOT said, including declaring a state of emergency. MDOT applied for the initial funding, which will pay for debris removal, demolition, detours, emergency repairs, and design and reconstruction.

A history of helping rebuild

Over the years, emergency relief funding has played a role in rapidly rebuilding a number of bridges and highways destroyed by accidents or natural disasters, including the Interstate 95 bridge collapse in Philadelphia in June 2023. That bridge fell when a gasoline tanker truck crashed and exploded under the highway. The state received $3 million in ER funds to repair the bridge.

In 2017, a bridge collapsed on I-85 in Atlanta, also due to a fire from materials being stored under the highway. The Georgia Department of Transportation received $10 million from the FHWA in ER funds to repair and reopen the bridge just 43 days later.

Pittsburgh’s Fern Hollow Bridge — which carried Forbes Avenue over a large ravine in Frick Park — collapsed in 2022 due to issues stemming from water damage and deterioration. It was reconstructed just 11 months later.

“The emergency declarations and proclamations are definitely a key to moving this thing a lot quicker,” said Cheryl Moon, a retired PennDOT executive and professional engineer.

Disaster declarations in Maryland will allow the state to do what Pennsylvania did with Fern Hollow, such as helping cut through red tape and fast track the process, Moon said.

With Fern Hollow, officials compressed steps and were able to hire a design engineering consultant and contractor at the same time, Moon said.

“That can definitely save years by allowing those folks to be a collaborative team throughout the whole process,” Moon said.

First steps taken in Baltimore

A long road to recovery lies ahead in Baltimore, with limited ship traffic being allowed through a temporary channel as crews continue work to clear the debris caused by the wreckage.

Recovery workers needed 10 hours to cut free and remove a 200-ton piece of debris that is only a portion of what must be removed to clear the channel, officials said.

“We’re talking about something that is almost the size of the Statue of Liberty,” Gov. Moore said at a recent news conference. “The scale of this project, to be clear, is enormous. And even the smallest [of tasks] are huge.”

The first priorities involve clearing the water and reopening the major port to vessel traffic.

Limited ship traffic reportedly resumed for the first time Monday after recovery teams opened a temporary channel on the northbound side of the wreckage.

The first vessel to transit the channel was a tugboat pushing a barge supplying jet fuel to the U.S. Department of Defense, the Coast Guard said.

A second temporary channel on the southbound side with a depth of 15 to 16 feet is planned to open “in the coming days,” Moore said. Once debris is cleared, a third channel with a depth of 20 to 25 feet would allow almost all tug and barge traffic in and out of the port.

The timeline and total cost for constructing the Francis Scott Key Bridge is unknown, but the original span took five years to build, wrapping up construction in 1977. The 1.6-mile-long bridge connected Interstate 695 across where the Patapsco River flows into the Chesapeake Bay.

Experts have said the bridge could take between 18 months and several years to build, at an estimated cost of between $400 million and $1 billion.

Photo by NTSBgov

Miles Smith

Miles Smith has more than two decades of communications experience in the public and private sectors, including several years of covering local governments for various daily and weekly print publications. His scope of work includes handling public relations for large private-sector corporations and managing public-facing communications for local governments.

Smith has recently joined the team as a content writer for SPI’s news publications, which include Texas Government Insider, Government Contracting Pipeline and its newest digital product, Government Market News, which launched in September 2023. He graduated from Texas A&M University with a bachelor’s in journalism.

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