U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg visited Philadelphia on Friday to hail the first fruits of the infrastructure law: $27.5 billion in new federal aid headed to states to rehabilitate aging bridges, including $1.6 billion for Pennsylvania.
He stood just below the 690-foot Martin Luther King Jr. Bridge across the Schuylkill, now closed to repair deterioration of its deck and the steel beams underneath.
The infrastructure law includes the nation’s single-largest investment in bridges since construction of the interstate system, the Biden administration says.
“Now we’re in delivery mode now,” Buttigieg said, joking with Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.) about the difficult path to passage of the infrastructure act. The rusting hulk of the bridge was behind them, nicely framed for the camera’s eye.
It was closed to vehicle traffic in early 2020, severing a link between Eakins Oval and Martin Luther King Drive on the west bank of the river, with access to West Philadelphia and Fairmount Park.
“Dr. Martin Luther King often spoke of building bridges between all Americans,” Buttigieg said in his remarks. “Both literally and symbolically, we’ve got a lot of bridges to repair as well as build.”
States usually receive federal transportation funds in proportion to their size, but the bridge money will be awarded mostly based on how much it would cost to fix the links most in need of work. Ten states stand to get about half the funds.
State transportation departments pass federal aid to specific projects identified as the most crucial, in concert with regional planning commissions. U.S. DOT issued guidance Friday encouraging states to repair existing structures — though they are free to build new bridges if they want to do so. The guidance also urges states to include resilience to climate change and equity in mind.
But there’s also a new twist to encourage states’ transportation departments to focus spending on smaller bridges owned by counties, cities, and towns. The federal government will cover 100% of the cost of work on those spans, but states and local government will need to pay the normal 20% local share of the cost of repairs to bridges on interstates and designated federal highways.
“A lot of local jurisdictions are really strapped and even that 20% share could be a deterrent to moving forward,” Buttigieg said in a brief interview. “So our hope is that that 100% allocation can really unstick a lot of projects that just wouldn’t have moved otherwise.”
Pennsylvania has 3,353 total bridges in poor condition, the second-most in the nation. New Jersey, with 502 bridges in need of work, is due to get $1.1 billion over five years.
The city closed Martin Luther King Drive to vehicles early in the pandemic, and bicyclists, pedestrians, and runners flocked there; one survey found 5,000 people a day used the drive and bridge. Many activist groups wanted the drive to be permanently car-free, but that didn’t fly politically. Cyclists in particular object that the curvy and reopened MLK Drive doesn’t have protected bike lanes; neither do the city’s plans for the bridge.
Buttigieg has embraced traffic calming measures and active transportation, though he didn’t address the controversy directly.
“This funding can also be used to help make bridges more safe and accessible for people who walk or bike, which, as we saw here, is something that people love to do when they have the option to do it safely,” he said.
MLK Drive Bridge, built in 1966, is among the spans listed as being in poor condition; it does not mean a bridge is unsafe, but that it needs a lot of work. Before its closure, the King bridge carried 25,000 vehicles daily. The rehabilitation project was expected to cost up to $15 million.
Mayor Jim Kenney said supply-chain disruptions have driven up some construction costs. “The bipartisan infrastructure law will help ensure this project stays on track,” he said.