House T&I Discusses Bridge Collapse

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee met to discuss the aftermath of the Francis Scott Key (FSK) Bridge collapse in Baltimore in March of this year. The Committee invited testimony from the representatives of four of the federal agencies primarily involved with the investigation, clean up, and rebuilding processes. This included the following individuals: 

  • Vice Admiral Peter Gautier, Deputy Commandant for Operation, United States Coast Guard 
  • Major General William (Butch) H. Graham, Deputy Commanding General, Civil and Emergency Operations, United States Army Corps of Engineers  
  • Hon. Shailen Bhatt, Administrator, Federal Highway Administration, United States Department of Transportation 
  • Hon. Jennifer Homendy, Chair, National Transportation Safety Board  

As noted by Vice Admiral Gautier, this hearing took place 51 days after the Singapore-flagged vessel Dali collided with the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore, leading to a near total collapse of the bridge and the loss of six construction crew members who were working on the bridge at the time. While there has been discussion of the incident within other hearings, this convening of the committee was focused on discussing results of the preliminary investigation report from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), response efforts, and the process for reconstructing the bridge, as well as related funding questions.  

NTSB Preliminary Report  

The preliminary report from the ongoing investigation by the NTSB was released on May 14th – the day prior to this hearing. While the agency is still early in the investigation process, Chair Homendy joined to go over what is known about the allision at this time.  

The Dali experienced four total power outages leading up to collision with FSK Bridge on March 26th. On the 25th, while in port, the ship experienced two power outages related to maintenance. At this time, a crew member mistakenly closed an engine damper while conducting maintenance on the vessel’s exhaust system. This action blocked the engine’s exhaust gases from traveling out of the stack which led to the engine stalling. While recovering from this initial outage, a second outage occurred as a result of insufficient fuel pressure to the online generator. While recovering from the blackout, the crew opted to switch to a different transformer and set of breakers. While this is a common practice, it may have impacted the vessel’s operations the following day.  

On March 26th, the morning of the collision, the same two outages occurred again due to the tripping of circuit breakers. About 0.6 miles from the bridge, one high and one low voltage breaker each tripped causing the vessel to lose main propulsion. Power was briefly restored by the crew before the final outage occurred approximately 0.2 miles from the bridge. The vessel’s power was restored right before striking pier 17 of the bridge, but the vessel was unable to regain propulsion.  

During an exchange with Rep. Chuy Garcia (D-IL), Chair Homendy added that the time from the blackout to bridge strike was a total of four minutes. The time passed between the pilot dispatcher’s call to the Maryland Transportation Authority (MDTA) and closure of the bridge was 52 seconds – saving the lives of countless vehicle passengers.  

Response Effort  

While the NTSB is responsible for conducting the safety investigation related to the incident, the United States Coast Guard (USCG) and United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) have deployed staff and resources to engage with the debris clean up and reopening of the bridge.  

In his testimony, Major General Graham put the clean-up effort into perspective by sharing that the agency was faced with the task of removing 50,000 tons of concrete, asphalt, and steel – or over 200 Statues of Liberty worth of material – from the channel. USCG and USACE activated their emergency protocols, tapped into needed funding, and partnered with other relevant agencies to begin the disaster response process.   

USCG and USACE partnered with the Maryland State Police (MSP), MDTA, Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE), and Witt O’Brien’s, which represents the owner and operating companies of the Dali, to form a Unified Command Team which Major General Graham hailed as one of the best teams he has ever seen. These entities have coordinated activities effectively to leverage resources and return the channel to operation. On April 25th, a 35-foot-deep limited access channel was reopened for passage a week ahead of schedule, and the full channel is anticipated to reopen by the end of May.  

Bridge Repair and Funding  

The FSK Bridge and channel is a critical artery for the region. The Port of Baltimore handles significant tonnage and is the busiest port in the country for cars and light duty trucks. Since the bridge collapse, additional stress has also been put on alternate roadway routes. Rep. Larsen mentioned that Baltimore has seen an 18 percent traffic increase in the Fort McHenry and Harbor Tunnels, and Hazmat trucks are having to take alternate routes which are adding 25 miles to their route. Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) shared information on a 29 percent traffic crash increase on other routes following the collapse with two to four times longer travel times.  

Needless to say, the region is in a hurry to begin the reconstruction process on the bridge. In the weeks following the incident, Maryland moved to reclassify Interstate 695 as a segment of the Interstate Highway System, rather than a state highway badged as an Interstate. This was approved by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and means that the project is now eligible for a 90/10 cost share rather than the 80/20 cost share which applied to a state highway. Under this structure, FHWA would foot the cost of 90 percent of the estimated $1.7 to $1.9 billion project through emergency relief funds, and Maryland’s portion, which they hope will be paid through a congressional appropriation, would fall around $170 million.  

The projected timeline shared by Administrator Bhatt tentatively has a request for proposal out from the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) around Memorial Day of this year with a project team selected in August. Assuming the timeline holds true, the project is slated for completion in 2028.  

While the need for the bridge seems like a no-brainer, the planning and funding details are anything but that. FHWA has met with various agencies to work through emergency processes and begin expediting the environmental review process for reconstruction. While the footprint of the project will be nearly the same, the bridge will be built differently with upgraded pier protections and other elements. Because of these project changes, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires environmental review – a process which can delay projects significantly. FHWA is meeting with various agencies at this time to explore the possibility of expediting environmental review processes through an option like a categorical exclusion or other arrangement.  

On the funding front, members had numerous questions related to fairness and reasonable taxpayer burden for this project. Here are a few of the facts/concerns around funding: 

  • When the incident first occurred, the US Department of Transportation (USDOT) provided $60 million in emergency relief funds for Baltimore.  
  • Baltimore has an insurance policy on the bridge that totals $350 million. This money has not been accessed.  
  • I-695 was previously operated as a tolled road, and many members balked at the idea of the state later generating revenue on a project constructed with nearly $2 billion in federal funding. While comments were made about legislation requiring the repayment of federal funding from toll revenue, Administrator Bhatt clarified that, as is, if the bridge is rebuilt as a tolled facility, these funds can only be used for the bridge or Title 23 purposes in Baltimore. 
  • There will be an ongoing litigation process, likely spanning more than a decade, with the Dali’s owner.  
  • The Limit of Liability Act of 1851 limits owner liability in some shipping incidents. Rep. John Garamendi (R-CA) mentioned a cap around the $40 million mark for this incident. 
  • On the agency front, USCG has incurred $20 million in direct and indirect costs for their response efforts, and USACE reprogrammed unused funds from fiscal year 2020 and years prior for response efforts. Thus far, the agency has expended $37 million on wreckage removal and response.  
  • After the last two major highway bridge collapses, the 2007 I-35W Minneapolis collapse and the I-10 Twin Spans in Louisiana collapse, Congress in each instance passed a special law authorizing the federal government to pay 100 percent of the replacement cost. That has not happened yet but is being pushed by Maryland legislators. 

Needless to say, there are many moving parts at this time, and members understandably had many questions related to how the project cost will be addressed. Members noted the importance of having funding fully committed, and for the first 270 days, the federal government covers the full cost of a project of this nature through emergency relief funds.  

In the next approximately six months prior to that cut off point, Congress will have to determine how to proceed as well as how/if they will replace reprogrammed funding in future appropriations (USACE described some of their reprogrammed funding as excess dollars from favorable bidding situation in FY2020), as well as the gaps for the agency’s engaged in response efforts. Meanwhile, the queue of needed infrastructure projects continues to loom. Rep. Garret Graves (R-LA) voiced frustration over a seven-year delay in fixing a portion of a bridge on I-10 near his district – one of the busiest roadway segments in the country. While the need for bridge replacement was certainly acknowledged by all, members were all acutely aware that this funding must come from somewhere.  

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