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GOP gubernatorial candidate cites Fern Hollow collapse in campaign email

Susan Walsh

Former Congressman and current Republican candidate for governor Lou Barletta is citing last week’s Fern Hollow Bridge collapse as he seeks to build some political infrastructure of his own. On Wednesday night, his campaign sent out a blast email rallying political support by blaming Democrats, including the party’s likely future gubernatorial nominee, for the failure of the Frick Park structure last Friday.

The email opens by asserting that, “First and foremost, we want to say we are here to help the victims of the bridge collapse in Frick Park and our thoughts and prayers are with the victims.” It goes on to say that “everyone is pointing fingers, trying to figure out who is at fault,” then adds, “We’ll tell you who’s to blame. JOE BIDEN, JOSH SHAPIRO, TOM WOLF & THE REST OF THE DEMOCRATS.”

The email contends the collapse of the bridge, which is owned and maintained by the city of Pittsburgh, was “due to Gov. Wolf’s incompetence.” It faults Biden for delivering an infrastructure speech “riddled with inaccuracies” in Pittsburgh after the collapse — while at the same time blasting Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who is all but certain to be the Democratic gubernatorial nominee this year, for not attending Biden’s visit.

Days after Pittsburgh's Fern Hollow Bridge fell, Republican gubernatorial candidate used the collapse to rally support for his campaign
Barletta campaign website
Days after Pittsburgh's Fern Hollow Bridge fell, Republican gubernatorial candidate used the collapse to rally support for his campaign

The email links to an online form that urges visitors to join the campaign “in holding Biden, Shapiro & Wolf accountable by adding your name to our petition,” and providing email and cell phone contact information. Campaigns frequently use such online petitions to build lists for future communications, including donation requests and further text-message and email blasts.

The Barletta campaign did not respond to questions Thursday. Those included a request to explain what responsibility an attorney general had for the condition of infrastructure, and a query about whether Barletta himself — who served on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee during his time in Congress — bore any responsibility for a lack of funding for bridge repair in his home state.

None of the Democrats cited in the email seemed particularly fazed by its accusations. A White House spokesman noted that the infrastructure that Biden passed through Congress included “the largest investment in bridges since the Interstate Highway system” created by President Dwight Eisenhower. Under that spending plan, which Biden touted during his visit, Pennsylvania is set to receive more than $1.6 billion in federal money for bridge upgrades.

The Shapiro campaign praised that investment and noted that while Barletta opposed “this bipartisan effort to fix our infrastructure and create Pennsylvania jobs,” Shapiro backed the legislation. If elected governor, the campaign said, Shapiro “will bring people together to rebuild our economy and create jobs.”

Wolf’s office took a harder line.

“While Mr. Barletta, a private citizen, is trying to score cheap political points, Governor Wolf is taking action” on the collapse, said Wolf’s press secretary, Elizabeth Rementer.

“As a former congressman, Mr. Barletta is well aware that addressing infrastructure is a national issue that has been largely ignored for decades — and he was part of that problem.”

Barletta was an early champion of Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign and a staunch supporter of his presidency. Yet Trump proved famously incapable of delivering an infrastructure spending package, despite repeated promises over the course of his administration and despite Barletta’s own calls for such investment. Republican intraparty bickering hampered those efforts even when the GOP controlled the Whte House and Congress.

Pennsylvania does have serious and longstanding infrastructure concerns. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, roughly 1 in 7 Pennsylvania bridges is structurally deficient — the fifth-highest percentage in the country. But decayed infrastructure is a national problem (which is a reason the ASCE, which represents 150,000 people who work in civil engineering, has cited for its support of Biden’s bill). And the states with a higher percentage of deficient bridges include the Republican bastions of South Dakota and West Virginia.

Pennsylvania has made inroads on improving its bridge infrastructure during Wolf’s term: Nearly one-quarter of its bridges were in poor condition in 2014, though the ASCE ascribes the improvement to a transportation funding bill passed by his predecessor.

Wolf and the rest of Harrisburg have come under fire since the Fern Hollow bridge collapse, in part because of a long-standing practice by which some $4.2 billion of fuel tax revenue has been diverted during the past decade from road and bridge work to funding Pennsylvania State Police operations. But it’s unclear that the money, which would have been earmarked for state-owned spans rather than city-owned bridges, would have altered Fern Hollow’s fate.

In any case, the state police diversion predates Wolf’s administration as well. And the diverted money helps cover the cost of providing police services to communities in suburban and rural communities — many of which lie in Republican legislative districts.

Barletta’s willingness to make a political issue of the collapse is uncommon for Republicans who represent southwestern Pennsylvania, or who hope to. Senator Pat Toomey’s office issued a tweetsaying it was monitoring the situation. The region’s Republican members of congress ignored the event, with Mike Kelly focusing on a Commonwealth Court ruling against the state’s mail-in ballot procedures, and Guy Reschenthaler marking the day with tweets lambasting Democrats’ handling of China and espousing school choice.

All three Republicans voted against the infrastructure bill last year.

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.