Baltimore Bridge Disaster Could Wipe Out Federal Emergency Fund

Baltimore Bridge Disaster Could Wipe Out Federal Emergency Fund

Julia Nikhinson/Reuters

The effort to rebuild Baltimore’s Francis Scott Key Bridge could overwhelm a key federal emergency fund that is already facing more requests for help than it can handle.

As The Washington Post’s Jacob Bogage reports, the Federal Highway Administration’s emergency relief fund currently contains about $890 million in reserves, but has a backlog of requests for repair projects around the country totaling $2.1 billion. Funds are distributed according to need rather than in the order the requests are received, and the bridge in Baltimore could rise to the top of the priority repair list – potentially wiping out the emergency fund at the same time.

Rep. Mike Quigley of Illinois, the senior Democrat on the House Appropriations transportation subcommittee, told the Post that Congress will need to act to boost the emergency fund. “We have to come to realization that it needs to be tripled, quadrupled, just to have that money ready so we’re not debating it while one of our key arteries is broken,” he said. “We have to be honest with ourselves. This fund always needs more money. It’s critical for people, for our economy, for safety.”

Quigley called for any legislation on the issue to be bipartisan, which could be a challenge with some House Republicans questioning the need for the federal government to provide new funding for infrastructure repair.

Getting the funds flowing: Maryland has already received $60 million in emergency funds in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the bridge, which fell into the Patapsco River after being hit by a container ship on March 26, with a loss of six lives. The money has been used to handle traffic disruptions caused by the closure of a portion of I-695, known as the Baltimore Beltway. Local officials are expected to request upwards of $1 billion to pay for recovery and rebuilding, and some experts think the project could cost even more than that in the end.

Lawmakers from Maryland released a bill Thursday, dubbed the Baltimore BRIDGE Relief Act, that would guarantee that the federal government covers 100% of the cost of the bridge project – a level of support that President Joe Biden vowed to provide soon after the disaster occurred.

How the larger funding plays out could get complicated. With other states already waiting in line for help from the emergency fund – California alone has more than $700 million in unfunded needs for emergency repairs to federal highways – there may be pressure to find other sources of money.

Some Republicans have called for insurance companies to bear the weight of the rebuilding effort. While the White House has agreed that private insurers need to play a role in paying for the reconstruction, it could take years to reach a final settlement, most likely making federal participation a necessity. Some conservatives have also called for any new infrastructure spending to be offset with spending cuts elsewhere – an option that is unlikely to pass muster with Democrats.

Other sources lawmakers could consider include funds that have already been allocated for infrastructure use. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021, for example, created a grants program focused specifically on bridge repair, and according to the Post, Maryland could conceivably receive between $5 billion and $6 billion over two years from that program if officials opt to support the reconstruction project.

The bottom line: Led by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, demolition experts are clearing the wreckage of the Francis Scott Key Bridge, and officials say the main channel to the Port of Baltimore could be open by the end of May. Meanwhile, lawmakers will battle over who pays for the massive reconstruction project, and how.