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Biden says bridge collapse underscores need and opportunity for infrastructure investments

President Joe Biden speaks at Carnegie Mellon University at Mill 19 in Pittsburgh, Friday, Jan. 28, 2022.
Andrew Harnik
President Joe Biden spoke at Hazelwood's Mill 19 after visiting the site of a collapsed bridge in Frick Park.

In Pittsburgh Friday, President Joe Biden said the collapse of a bridge in the city’s Frick Park early Friday morning exemplified in stark and regrettable terms the need for historic investments in the nation’s infrastructure.

“A bridge, more than 50 years old … collapsed right here in Pittsburgh. It had been rated in poor condition for the past 10 years,” Biden said at Carnegie Mellon University’s Mill 19 in Hazelwood.

“There are another 3,300 bridges here in Pennsylvania, some of which are just as old and just as decrepit,” he continued. “It’s just simply unacceptable.”

Biden's visit to Pittsburgh had been previously scheduled, but the collapse of the bridge, he said, underscored the need for investment across the country.

“We’re going to rebuild that bridge along with thousands of other bridges in Pennsylvania and across the country,” he said of the new infrastructure law, which he described as “the largest investment in our nation’s bridges since Eisenhower put together the interstate highway system.”

Prior to his remarks in Hazelwood, Biden visited the site of the collapsed four-lane bridge that carries Forbes Avenue over Fern Hollow Creek in Frick Park. The bridge fell into the ravine below around 6 a.m. Friday. A Port Authority bus was left dangling at the top edge of the breach. Rescuers and bystanders pulled the driver and two passengers to safety, and 10 people were injured, according to local officials. There were no reported fatalities.

The administration originally planned the Pittsburgh visit to highlight how the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill Biden signed in November will help to shore up the nation’s supply chains — and to tout his administration’s own economic record. The trip to Mill 19 marked an early stop in the White House’s campaign to promote the legislation in an attempt to counteract Biden’s slipping approval ratings.

Local officials said 10 people had been injured and four had been treated at local hospitals, but there were no serious injuries.

Biden addressed a key factor driving voter concerns: rising inflation. He argued that one-third of spiraling inflation rates could be attributed to the rising cost of automobiles — and that much of the car crunch was driven by a lack of semiconductors.

"The [cars] that aren't being built cause the price of those that are being built to go that much higher," he said. He predicted that the problem would ease when chipmaker Intel builds a recently-announced manufacturing plant slated for Ohio — though the facility will provide little immediate relief, as it is unlikely to begin operating until 2025.

Biden addressed a crowd of local labor, business, and academic leaders, who gathered along with elected officials at the sprawling facility that once housed the Jones & Laughlin steel works. The site has since become a hub for companies specializing in robotics, artificial intelligence and automation.

Such ventures, Biden said, are key to modernizing manufacturing in the U.S. He said the country must ramp up domestic production to strengthen supply chains over the long term.

General Motors’ plan to build a facility in Michigan will, like the Intel plant slated for Ohio, help to advance that cause, Biden said. And he praised Pittsburgh-based Wabtec for developing its first battery-electric locomotive. The freight train manufacturer announced the breakthrough in September.

“We need a future that’s made in America,” Biden said. “That means bringing manufacturing back, jobs back, building the supply chains here at home, not outsourcing abroad, so we have better jobs and lower prices here.”

President Joe Biden tours Carnegie Mellon University at Mill 19 in Pittsburgh, Friday, Jan. 28, 2022.
Andrew Harnik
President Joe Biden tours Carnegie Mellon University at Mill 19 in Pittsburgh, Friday, Jan. 28, 2022.

Last week, federal officials announced the Port of Pittsburgh will receive $857 million from the bipartisan infrastructure package. The funds will help to overhaul the Montgomery Locks and Dam, located near Monaca, Pa.

Biden joked that "Bob Casey’s been on my back ... for so long" about the dam project that it should be named after him.

The state is also slated to receive $11.3 billion over the next five years for federal-aid highway programs as well as $1.6 billion for bridge replacement and repairs.

While Biden touted that investment on his visit to Pittsburgh – “There are literally more bridges in Pittsburgh than any other city in the world. ... We're going to fix them all," he said at the Forbes Avenue site — the federal infrastructure money alone won’t cover the state’s needs. With more than 3,300 bridges in Pennsylvania in poor condition, the new funding amounts to less than $500,000 per bridge.

But University of Pittsburgh business professor Prakash Mirchandani noted that Pennsylvania scored more money than other states “proportionally speaking.”

“Pennsylvania has a lot of bridges, and also the roadway infrastructure needs maintenance … because of the hills and the rivers, and also because we have a fairly severe winter season,” said Mirchandani, who directs the Center for Supply Chain Management at Pitt’s Katz Graduate School of Business.

“The infrastructure bill does go a long way to improve and enhance the infrastructure,” he said. “That will help in the transportation of goods. And as that improves, that's going to help in improving the resilience of supply chains.”

The legislation will also finance $355 million in upgrades at Pennsylvania airports. Nationally, it dedicates $66 billion for passenger and freight rail and $17 billion for ports.

During the pandemic, ports have been clogged with an excess of shipping containers as shippers struggle to meet surging demand for consumer items such as exercise equipment, liquor, and home furniture. The resulting supply crunch helped to drive up inflation to a 40-year high of 7% in December.

While Republicans have faulted Biden for rising prices, on Friday Biden focused instead on record growth in the U.S. economy last year. New numbers show that GDP increased by 5.7% in 2021, with a particularly strong fourth quarter.

“After my first year as president, the United States had the fastest economic growth in nearly four decades, along with the greatest year of job growth in American history — 6.4 million jobs created in one year,” Biden said.

Still, the threat of COVID-19 and ongoing supply constraints continue to hamper overall economic performance, and only 41% of U.S. adults approve of how Biden is handling his job as president, according to poll results Pew Research Center released Tuesday.

The Biden administration has taken steps to expand the capacity of California ports and goods carriers in an effort to ease supply constraints.

And on Friday, the president noted that the workforce had gained an estimated 367,000 manufacturing jobs in the last year, “the highest increase in U.S. manufacturing jobs in 30 years," he said.

Factories remained strained amid increased demand for goods, however. They rank among the hardest hit employers when it comes to hiring and worker retention.

Both local Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman and Congressman Conor Lamb, joined Biden for his visit to Hazelwood Friday. Democrats in other states have taken steps recently to distance themselves from the increasingly unpopular president.