Federal government braces for a long – and expensive – road to recovery from Baltimore bridge collapse

Rebuilding the Francis Scott Key Bridge and getting the critical Port of Baltimore back online will require an enormous interagency effort – and significant federal funding.

President Joe Biden pledged the full support of the federal government in the response and recovery efforts after Tuesday’s collapse. His administration has already conveyed a sense of urgency to open up federal funding to remove debris and ultimately rebuild the bridge.

“I’ve directed my team to move heaven and earth to reopen the port and rebuild the bridge as soon as humanly possible,” Biden said of the interagency response, vowing that the federal government “will pay the entire cost of reconstructing that bridge.”

The port remains indefinitely closed and commuters are unable to access a key traffic artery. Though the price of rebuilding remains unclear, there are several mechanisms the federal government can tap to pay for what’s likely to be a lengthy and expensive rebuilding process – one that may ultimately require Congress to get involved.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said there are no immediate estimates for how much repairing the bridge would cost.

“We are committed to delivering every federal resource needed, every federal resource needed to help Maryland get back to normal, and we’re going to work with them every step of the way to rebuild this bridge. It is not going to be simple,” he told reporters at the White House. “Rebuilding will not be quick or easy or cheap, but we will get it done.”

The most likely source of immediate funding for repairs to the bridge is the Federal Highway Administration Emergency fund, according to a congressional source. CNN has reached out to US DOT to check on the balance of that fund, which typically gets $100 million per year.

With emergency operations underway, federal and state officials will be working around the clock to assess the damage and the cost to rebuild – and rebuild quickly, said Andy Winkler, an expert in disaster and infrastructure issues at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

Construction on the Francis Scott Key Bridge began in 1972 and cost $60.3 million at the time, according to the Maryland Transportation Authority. The bridge opened to traffic in March 1977. But Winkler said it may not necessarily be faster to construct a bridge of this magnitude 46 years later – and that process is complicated by the bridge’s placement over a working waterway port.

Efforts to determine how much it will cost the to replace the bridge and how long that will take are underway as a team of government agencies assesses the damage – including whether the remaining pieces of the bridge can be salvaged or need to be rebuilt.

There is some precedent for a federal response of this scale – the I-35W Mississippi River bridge collapse in Minnesota of 2007 and the section of I-95 overpass that collapsed in Philadelphia last June.

Following the 1-95 collapse, the Federal Highway Administration released millions in immediate funding to jumpstart recovery and rebuilding efforts, which could happen again in this situation, Winkler said.

There is also funding from the bipartisan infrastructure law that could be used to rebuild the bridge.

That law authorized $550 billion in new federal investments. As with any massive spending package with hundreds of funding streams, it’s difficult to track exactly how much money remains. But the money is being disbursed over a five-year period, so there will be funds available through 2026.

Most of the money passes through the US Department of Transportation and is awarded to states and projects on an annual basis through either a state-based formula or competitive grant programs aimed at specific projects. Maryland is expected to receive more than $940 million in formula funding this year for roads, bridges and roadway safety. The state can also apply for additional grants for specific projects.

After a 447-foot-long, four-lane bridge collapsed in Pittsburgh in 2022 — hours before Biden was scheduled to visit the city — money from the infrastructure law helped rebuild the bridge quickly without affecting funding for other critical projects in the region. The bridge reopened within one year.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said that funding from the law, as well as anticipated insurance payments, will help with the rebuild.

“We have money from the bipartisan infrastructure law that could potentially be helpful. My expectation would be that, ultimately, there will be insurance payments in part to cover this. But we don’t want to allow worrying about where the financing is coming to hold up reconstruction,” she said during an appearance on MSNBC.

The government could also pull together funding resources from the Covid relief package passed in 2021. And it’s possible that Congress may need to pass additional funding.

It remains unclear if the shipping company, charter vessel company, or another outside entity could be held financially responsible, even in part, for the bridge’s collapse. The US Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board has begun investigating the ship’s power issues.

Though Buttigieg declined to comment on the independent investigation, he said that “if any private party is responsible for and accountable for this, then they will be held accountable.”

In the meantime, he said, his department is working to “tear down every obstacle, physical, financial, administrative, that means using all of the tools that we have as a department, and very likely working with Congress as well.”

Despite significant congressional gridlock on numerous spending issues, Winkler predicted there could be appetite to help fund efforts to rebuild the bridge.

“There’s a recognition that this can happen anywhere, and members can usually, eventually, work out some kind of understanding if resources are needed,” he said.

However, it could take longer to pass a supplemental spending bill, which typically encompasses several disasters including tornados or other severe weather.

Winkler said it will also be key to watch whether and how soon the president declares a federal emergency, which can help relax certain federal regulations and contracting rules to expedite a rebuilding process.

Maryland Gov. Wes Moore has already declared an emergency in his state, and he would need to request an emergency declaration with the White House.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat who represents Maryland, said the Maryland congressional delegation is working with the state to determine what federal funding is needed.

“Once those determinations are made, I’ll be laser-focused on providing any federal resources necessary as quickly as possible,” he said in a statement.

Prior to the Tuesday collision, a congressional source told CNN that bipartisan infrastructure law funding had not been requested for the Key Bridge, which was up to code and rated in fair condition by the US DOT, according to federal data.

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