One month since the FSK Bridge collapse: A call-to-action for revitalizing structurally deficient infrastructure

By Theodora Lawson

On March 26th, the DALI Cargo ship collided with one of the pillars of the Francis Scott Key Bridge, sending the historic 1977 bridge collapsing into the Fort McHenry Channel in Baltimore, Maryland. In a combined effort between federal investigators and U.S. Army Corp Engineers, the investigation into the collision and the process of clearing the tons of debris from the Baltimore Channel are well underway. Yet questions still loom around the lengthy cleanup process and what caused the deadly crash that killed six construction workers. While investigators attempt to uncover a timeline of events that led up to the crash and engineers confront years of reconstruction work ahead, the collapse of the FSK bridge produces additional questions surrounding the state of American infrastructure.      

The collapse of the bridge may have been unavoidable despite the aged infrastructure. The colossal force of the head-on collision with the DALI, weighing 100,000 tons, is surely to be a formidable foe to any number of America’s 600,000 bridges. According to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, the unique circumstance of the collapse is not indicative of a larger problem. Still, whether unavoidable or not, the collapse of FSK still serves as a call to action for revitalizing American infrastructure. 

One in every 13 bridges in the U.S. are in poor condition. According to a 2023 report from The ARTBA, “Over 222,000 spans need repair, including 76,600 bridges that should be replaced” (ARTBA 2023). Of these 222,000, nearly 42,400 are structurally deficient and in poor condition. President Biden’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is spotlighted as America’s bridges age. The bill, passed in 2021, continues to funnel federal investments into necessary bridge repair. However, a polarized congress and wars in Europe and the Middle East have left US politicians stretched thin; addressing infrastructure shortfalls seems unlikely in the near future. This raises yet another question about why maintaining infrastructure safety faces so many political roadblocks. Kevin DeGood from the Center for American Progress points to an uncomfortable truth: voters reward politicians who promise new construction but not maintenance.  

The ARTBA’s national bridge inventory report for Washington, DC, points to 127 of 252 bridges needing repair as of July 2023, with four of these bridges classified as “structurally deficient.” The Theodore Roosevelt Bridge over the Potomac River into Arlington, which averages 103,600 daily crosses, has been one of these structurally deficient bridges since 2018. The “poor” condition of the bridge was examined by NBC4 back in 2022 when the construction of rusted beams on the 60-year-old bridge caused major lane closures throughout the year. In the wake of the FSK bridge collapse, some activists and civil engineers argue that American infrastructure isn’t getting the attention it deserves, arguing the need for more robust protection systems, including sensors or fenders for bridges. There’s no easy fix to infrastructure deficits, especially given hurdles like overlapping national and state jurisdictions and funding shortages. As more is revealed about the circumstances that led up to the FSK bridge, it’s clear that Americans are concerned about the structural integrity of the country’s bridges and the price paid when politicians fail to prioritize current infrastructure shortfalls.

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