It would be hard to imagine a more dramatic way to illustrate the need for investment in US infrastructure that Joe Biden spoke about in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on Friday.
Hours before his visit and just four miles from where the president was scheduled to speak, one of Pittsburgh’s major car bridges collapsed.
At about 7am, the 477ft-long bridge on Forbes Avenue caved in, leaving a mass of concrete rubble and twisted metal as a visual metaphor for America’s crumbling infrastructure.
At least 10 people were injured, three taken to hospital, and a bus and several cars were left stranded in the wreckage. Rescue crews had to rappel 150ft down the hillside to reach injured people, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Biden kicked off his Pittsburgh tour with a visit to the stricken bridge. Praising first responders at the scene, he noted that the city has more bridges than any other in the world and promised: “We’re going to fix them all.”
In his formal remarks, he said: “Across the country there are 45,000 bridges in poor condition. That is simply just unacceptable. That is why your governor, your members of Congress and your mayor has been saying for years.”
He continued: “I’ve talked about it every time I’ve come to Pittsburgh, and we finally got it done: a bipartisan infrastructure law, including the largest investment in our nation’s bridges since Eisenhower put together the interstate highway system.”
Local officials stressed how close the catastrophe was to inflicting fatalities.
“If this would have occurred an hour later, this is a road that gets probably about 15,000 cars on it a day, and if it was rush hour, we would be looking at a couple hundred cars down in that valley,” said Corey O’Connor, a Pittsburgh city council member.
He added: “We got very, very lucky today, and hopefully those individuals at the hospital recover quickly and they’re home safe in the next couple days.”
Mike Doyle, the Democratic Congress member for the Pittsburgh area, said the bridge collapse was a “tragic example of why the infrastructure bill Congress just enacted is needed. We should be constantly investing more in our infrastructure so our bridges and other public works don’t reach this point of disrepair.”
The timing of the disaster was uncanny. Biden was visiting Pittsburgh to promote his $1.2tn infrastructure package, which he signed into law in November after it passed through Congress with exceptionally rare bipartisan support.
The bill is designed to inject vastly needed resources into the repair of the country’s infrastructure, including roads, railways, drinking water and bridges. Under the scheme, Pennsylvania is earmarked for $1.63bn of federal funds specifically for bridge improvements.
The Forbes Avenue bridge itself told a story. The structure was built in 1972, putting its age – 52 – years above the national average of 44 years for US bridges. A recent report from city inspectors found that both its deck and superstructure underneath the road were in poor condition.
That story is one that is repeated across the country. Years of inadequate public investment have allowed critical constructions and networks to age and deteriorate. Six people were killed in a catastrophic bridge collapse in Miami, Florida, in 2018.
Last year the American Society of Civil Engineers surveyed the landscape of US infrastructure and gave it a C-minus. The report noted that of the country’s 617,000 bridges, 42% were at least 50 years old and more than 46,000, or 7.5%, structurally deficient and in a poor state.
By the society’s reckoning, the US needs not only an emergency injection of funds to rehabilitate its bridges, but a regular increase of investment from the current $14bn to $23bn annually.
Again, Pennsylvania tells the tale. The state is fourth in the national table for the proportion of its structurally deficient bridges and 15% of its bridges are in poor condition, after Rhode Island (22%), Iowa (19%) and South Dakota (17%).
Pittsburgh politicians made the connection between the Forbes Avenue bridge collapse and Biden’s visit. The city’s mayor, Ed Gainey, said they were fortunate to have had no deaths and added: “We know we have bridges we need to take care of.”
With Biden visiting on the same day as the disaster “to talk about this infrastructure bill and why this funding is so important, today is significant”, Gainey said.
In his remarks, Biden, who was born in Pennsylvania but represented Delaware as a senator, told his audience he had “come home”.
He also said: “Right here in Pittsburgh, the future is being built on this city’s storied past. We know what happens when we stop investing in places like Pittsburgh.”
The infrastructure bill was one of the rare instances in recent times, and during Biden’s presidency, when a modicum of accord has been reached between the two main parties. The package passed the House of Representatives in November by 228 to 206 votes, with 13 Republicans backing it.
Soon after the Senate gave its blessing, with 69 votes to 30, clearing the 60-vote filibuster that has so often strangled Biden’s initiatives.