The breadth of crumbling infrastructure in the United States is “mind boggling”, President Joe Biden said on Friday, as he visited the site of an early-morning bridge collapse in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
The bridge collapsed just hours before Biden’s scheduled visit to the city to tout his massive infrastructure spending package – an incident that highlighted the urgency of his drive to address the nation’s ageing roads and bridge.
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Ten people sustained injuries, all of them minor, when the snow-covered span collapsed into a wooded gully at about 6am (11:00 GMT), according to authorities, who said a large gas leak was reported in the area at the time. The leak was brought under control.
“It sounded like a snowplough,” a witness told KDKA, a local news station, calling the timing – on the day of Biden’s visit – “an amazing coincidence”.
Visibly moved, Biden gazed across a ravine over the buckled sections of the half-century-old Fern Hollow Bridge, flanked by Pennsylvania and local officials and emergency workers as he surveyed the damage.
“The idea that we have been so far behind on infrastructure, for so many years – it’s just mind boggling,” Biden said.
The collapse highlights Biden’s call for massive investment in the nation’s bridges, highways and other infrastructure, which the president sees as a vital step in assuring the economy’s long-term health along with addressing supply chain shortage and revitalising manufacturing.
The collapsed bridge, near Pittsburgh’s Frick Park, was inspected last September, the city’s fire chief told reporters.
A photo posted on social media by KDKA showed several vehicles piled in the rubble of the collapsed roadway at the bottom of a wooded gully. At least one vehicle, which appeared to be a bus, was dangling at the edge of part of the bridge. A strong smell of natural gas permeated the area, Pittsburgh Public Safety said in a Twitter message.
Pennsylvania has 3,198 bridges rated as being in “poor” condition, according to the US Department of Transportation.
Biden said he was astonished to learn Pittsburgh had more bridges than any city in the world. “And we’re going to fix them all,” he said before leaving the site.
— Pittsburgh Public Safety (@PghPublicSafety) January 28, 2022
Biden, whose approval ratings have fallen in recent months amid a surge in COVID-19 infections and inflation, got a boost on Thursday when the Commerce Department reported the US economy grew the fastest in nearly four decades in 2021.
In Pittsburgh, the Democratic president was also scheduled to tour Mill 19, a former steel factory building now serving as a research and development hub, before hailing the US economy’s strong recovery from the pandemic, the White House said.
“The president will talk about the remarkable economic progress we’ve made over his first year in office – including the fastest single year of job growth in American history, the biggest unemployment drop on record and, as we learned on Thursday, the fastest economic growth in 2021 in almost four decades,” a White House official said ahead of the trip.
The visit took Biden, a Pennsylvania native, to a key battleground in this year’s midterm congressional elections. The battle to replace Republican Senator Pat Toomey, who is not seeking re-election, is expected to be one of the most competitive Senate races this year.
The trip is an opening step in a broader campaign to promote White House achievements in key states before the midterm elections. But two of the three leading Democrats on Pennsylvania’s statewide ballot this spring who were invited to appear with Biden will not attend, their campaigns confirmed on the eve of the president’s visit.
Biden has touted the passage of a $1 trillion infrastructure bill – a rare bipartisan victory in a deeply divided US Congress.