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What does Biden’s Baltimore Bridge promise mean?

President Biden on Tuesday made a televised public speech promising that federal authorities would pay for the building of a new bridge to replace the collapsed Francis Scott Key Bridge, hit by container ship Dali shortly after midnight local time on Tuesday March 26th.

In his speech, Biden directed Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg to respond immediately. He pledged the power of the federal government to repair what was broken. He promised that the reconstruction of the 1.9-mile span over the Patapsco River would be undertaken without hesitation.

That, however, raised several further enquiries.

A reporter questioned whether it would be the financial liability of the foreign shipping companies that own, operate, and chartered the Dali. Biden said that “we’re not going to wait for that to happen” – indicating that the federal government would spend the money first and get it back later.

Another thing that Biden failed to mention was timescale. One expert in the field of large-bridge construction (Matt Dursh, see next story) said that the rebuilding could take seven years.

Added to Dursh’s own timeline are factors such as a lack of salvage equipment in the region and the reduction in the size of the US Navy’s. There is a distinct lack of government ships and equipment to assist commercial operations. The US Army too has divested most of its watercraft equipment. On top of that, much of its remaining Joint Logistics Over The Shore (JLOTS) equipment has been sent to build piers in Gaza. Meanwhile, the Army Corps of Engineers, a major repair force after Storm Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, is now struggling to find enough American dredgers and construction vessels to complete its existing projects. Once again the Jones Act comes into play. Foreign-flagged ships and foreign crews are not allowed for domestic projects such as this.

Pete Buttigieg’s US Maritime Administration is now less than 2.5% the size of the Federal Aviation, with a tiny budget and a moderate track record when it comes to getting things done. The US Coast Guard has also been subject to budget cuts. This year alone it has announced that it would be removing 10 cutters from service, transfer five tugs from year-round to seasonal service, and close 29 boat stations.

Speaking to the press yesterday Buttigieg, said that the department of transportation was not involved in the investigation into the cause of the accident. “By design, the NTSB works independently in their investigation, they are going to assess what happened top to bottom”, he said

The conclusion would seem to be that the Biden promise will have to rely in the main on paying the private sector rather than Federal resources, and even in the private sector there is not a great deal of spare capacity. That in turn will put up the cost.

It seems certain that the Key Bridge incident will end up in several courts. The degree of protection around the bridge pier could be a factor. José R Cot, an experienced maritime litigation and insurance attorney at McGlinchey Stafford, said that Admiralty Law presumes that the moving vessel is at fault in the case of an allision, but this can be contested. Cot said that the shipowner could argue that the damage would not have been as serious if the pier had been better protected. “There has been a historical interest in making fender systems a lot more robust, such that if you have these types of allisions – which are bound to happen – that they do not damage the bridge structure itself. I do think that those representing the vessel interest would probably raise that.”