The images of the collapse of Baltimore’s Francis Scott Key Bridge were shocking, and the loss of life was heartbreaking. The economic impact of the disaster will be severe. As rescue efforts shift to recovery operations, what comes next?

To save beleaguered Baltimore, we must rebuild the Key Bridge—fast. The waterway that the bridge spanned is vital to traffic from the Port of Baltimore—the third-largest port on the U.S. eastern seaboard. At least 15,000 jobs depend directly on the port’s commerce, with hundreds of thousands more possibly hanging in the balance. The 1.6-mile, four-lane bridge of Interstate 695 that spanned that vital logistical artery carried more than 11 million vehicles per year, linking Baltimore City to Baltimore County and its suburbs.

The bridge was constructed between 1972 and 1977, when Baltimore boasted about 906,000 residents. That number has declined by more than a third, and the city that remains is less prosperous, less safe, and less hopeful. Decades of neglect have driven Baltimoreans out of their city to the suburbs and out of the state.

For Baltimore to survive its latest wound, it must rebuild the bridge without delay. It can be done, and has been done, before—1,000 miles away. And with bipartisan support, to boot.

In the middle of evening rush hour on August 1, 2007, the I-35W bridge collapsed over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Thirteen people died, and 145 were injured. The city felt like it was cut in half. Faulty design and poor safety inspections were blamed for the tragedy.

Republican governor Tim Pawlenty and the state’s Democratic-led U.S. congressional delegation immediately got to work to restore the span. Within hours, the federal government pledged millions to clean up the bridge’s debris. The chairman of the House Transportation Committee, Minnesota Democrat Jim Oberstar, earmarked $250 million for a new bridge. Within days, Congress passed the bill unanimously. President George W. Bush signed it into law five days after the tragedy. The new bridge reopened for traffic in an astounding 14 months—three months early.

How did it accomplish this so quickly? Federal and state officials “fast-tracked” the bridge’s reconstruction by reducing the regulatory burdens that hamper new construction projects—environmental, safety, labor, and contracting reviews. Then they supercharged the process with a carrot-and-stick approach to construction: if the contractors met the timetable, they would get a generous bonus; if they missed it, they would get hit with penalties. Crews worked around the clock every day, right through the state’s notorious winter weather.

Unfortunately, state, local, and federal authorities have been slow to adopt this commonsense model for other infrastructure projects.

Recently, the Bayonne Bridge, connecting Staten Island New York to New Jersey, was elevated and rebuilt. Even with public support for accelerated construction, the project ran from 2009 until 2017 before the bridge opened to traffic, with costs running hundreds of millions more dollars than expected. A much-heralded bridge spanning the Mississippi between Illinois and Iowa across I-74 was more than three decades in the making and ran significantly over budget, too.

While Baltimore’s Key Bridge is four times longer than Minneapolis’s and located in an estuary near the port, engineering marvels—unencumbered by red tape—have been constructed rapidly before. The similar destruction of an I-95 overpass in Philadelphia was repaired in just 12 days, after onerous rules were streamlined. Multiple hurricane-ravaged bridges in Florida have been re-opened in record speed, owing to government bureaucracies creating a glidepath instead of an obstacle to finishing the job.

President Biden, Congress, and state leaders must decide how badly they want to keep Maryland moving—and how soon.

Photo by Jonathan Newton/for The Washington Post via Getty Images


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