Maryland officials renew call for full federal funding for Key Bridge

Maryland Democratic Sens. Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin on Wednesday urged a Senate committee to support full federal funding to replace the Francis Scott Key Bridge, given the disaster’s “outsized” impact.

“We’re asking for 100 percent because that’s what we’ve done in the past” during major disasters elsewhere in the country, Cardin said in testimony before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

“And we need it now because we have loan contracts to start construction now. We don’t want to delay the work, every month of delay represents an additional loss for our communities,” he said.

Although Republicans on the committee appeared sympathetic, they rejected the Maryland lawmakers’ argument that the federal government should pay 100 percent of the cost of replacing the Key Bridge.

Typically, the federal government funds 80 to 90 percent of state transportation projects. The Key Bridge replacement is expected to cost about $1.7 billion.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) noted that the Federal Highway Administration’s (FHA) emergency aid program is currently underfunded and facing a backlog of projects in 38 states and territories. She suggested that because the Key Bridge is a revenue-generating facility, Maryland should use toll revenue to repay the federal government.

“My understanding is that the Maryland Department of Transportation wants the new bridge to also be a toll facility. That means there is a funding source for the Maryland Department of Transportation’s 10 percent share of the costs,” Capito said.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) said there is a backlog of worthy projects awaiting federal funding. Screenshot from Senate Environment and Public Works Committee video.

“In fact, this financing model was used successfully to build the Fort McHenry Tunnel in Baltimore, Maryland,” she said.

Cardin said in an interview after the hearing that Capito’s suggestion that the state dedicate Key Bridge toll revenues to the federal government ““It’s a manageable suggestion, but it’s just not fair.”

“Changing the share to 100 percent is very much consistent with past practices that we’ve implemented in emergencies,” he said at the hearing. “We did it for I-35W in Minnesota, we did it for Hurricane Irma, Hurricane Maria, Hurricane Fiona, we changed the share from 90 percent to 100 percent for all of those.”

The Key Bridge collapsed in the early hours of March 26, when the container ship Dali lost power as it left the Port of Baltimore and crashed into a bridge tower. The impact sent the center span of the bridge into the Patapsco River, killing six of the eight workers on the bridge at the time and blocking shipping lanes in and out of the port.

Salvage crews, led by federal and state authorities, removed thousands of tons of steel and concrete from the river, fully reopening the shipping channel to the port on June 11. But Cardin said traffic that would normally use the bridge has been forced to find other ways to cross Baltimore, causing delays and damaging local roads that were not designed to accommodate heavy vehicles.

Hours after the collapse, President Joe Biden promised that the federal government would fully fund its replacement, a promise reiterated in June by U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.

Cardin and Rep. Kweisi Mfume (D-7th) both introduced bills in April requesting full federal funding, but both bills have stalled. The White House also introduced an emergency supplemental appropriations bill last month that requests $4 billion to fund disaster relief projects across the country. That bill is on hold.

The state, meanwhile, has issued an expedited request for proposals for contractors to replace the bridge. Maryland Transportation Secretary Paul Wiedefeld told the committee Wednesday that the state hopes to award a contract by the end of the summer, with a view to reopening the bridge by the end of 2028.

Wiedefeld and others also noted that the state has “engaged a number of attorneys” to seek insurance and other compensation from the crash. That was echoed by Cardin and federal highway administrator Shailen Bhatt, who said the state expects a $350 million insurance claim and the potential for more in future litigation.

Cardin explained that any money received from insurance or lawsuits would go back to the federal government.

That caught the attention of Sen. Pete Ricketts (R-Neb.).

“It seems like we’re talking about the federal government reimbursing about $700 million and the federal government would pay about $1 billion under Senator Cardin’s plan, is that correct?” Ricketts asked.

Cardin said it was.

“The recovered amounts go entirely to the federal government, so the federal government will not pay 100% of the recovered amounts,” Cardin said. “A substantial percentage will be covered by insurance and third-party recoveries.”