Maryland transportation officials on Thursday said it could take nearly $2 billion to rebuild the Francis Scott Key Bridge, offering the clearest picture yet of efforts to replace a vital part of the local community and economy.

The state wants to be “as aggressive as we can” but also set a realistic timeline for delivery, Maryland Transportation Secretary Paul Wiedefeld said. He estimated that the project could be completed by fall 2028 and cost between $1.7 and $1.9 billion.

The Key Bridge was a lynchpin for the Port of Baltimore’s access to out-of-state markets and played a pivotal role in travel along the Northeast Corridor, Wiedefeld said. Roughly $21.5 billion in freight traveled across the bridge in 2023 alone, according to his department.

“We’ve all seen the importance of that bridge to both the community, to the Port of Baltimore, and you’ve seen it play out in the traffic,” he said. “That traffic will change again when the port opens, so I think it’ll even increase the urgency to get this bridge open as quickly as we can.”

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The continuous truss steel bridge carried roughly 30,000 vehicles a day and was a critical component of Interstate 695, the Baltimore Beltway. Trucks carrying hazardous materials across the Northeast relied on the bridge because they are prohibited from taking the Interstate 895 or Interstate 95 tunnels; rerouting around the beltway has added critical miles and minutes to their trips.

The state needs to submit a cost estimate to the federal government as part of the Federal Highway Administration’s Emergency Relief Program, which will front the costs for the new bridge, he said. The agency allocated more than $728 million to over 20 different states and territories through the program in fiscal year 2024 for roadway damages caused by disasters like winter storms or wildfires.

Planning for the bridge comes amid significant federal infrastructure investments in Maryland, including $4.7 billion for a new passenger rail tunnel to replace one built shortly after the Civil War.

The cost estimate was unveiled as members of the U.S. House of Representatives Appropriations Committee, including Republican leaders, toured the site of the collapsed bridge.

Also on the trip aboard a Coast Guard cutter was Shalanda Young, director of the federal Office of Management and Budget.

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The bipartisan committee members and Moore issued a joint statement that said they are “committed to navigating this situation together.”

”In the near term, we are focused on recovery efforts, rebuilding costs, and ensuring port operations are fully resumed,” the statement also read.

There was no mention of a timetable for approving funds for rebuilding the bridge. U.S. Rep. David Trone, an Appropriations Committee member, said in an interview that the trip was valuable for his colleagues to see the site in person.

“The tour was extremely productive and really fulfilled our mission, which was to give the key people on the Appropriations Committee an up-front look at the devastation, the size of the whole project and the importance of this project,” said Trone, a Democrat who also is running for the U.S. Senate.

Trone said he’s “very confident” Congress will start getting money flowing for the bridge rebuild, as well as eliminate the typical 10% state share for such projects.

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Maryland has two other members on Appropriations who have been advocating for bridge funding: Republican Rep. Andy Harris and Democratic Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger. Both were on Thursday’s tour.

Ruppersberger said in a statement that the tour was an important step in the effort to get full federal funding for the bridge. “Seeing the recovery efforts up close and personal definitely helps convey the importance and scale of this project,” he said.

Baltimore was thrust into the international spotlight when the Key Bridge was struck by a massive container ship that had lost power on March 26, crumbling into the Patapsco River. The early morning disaster, currently being investigated by multiple federal agencies, fueled both conspiracy theories and expressions of solidarity with the families of the six construction workers who fell to their deaths.

Even before salvage efforts began, President Joe Biden vowed to “move heaven and earth” to rebuild the bridge quickly and with federal dollars. After an aerial helicopter tour of the wreckage alongside Gov. Wes Moore on April 5, Biden pledged the new bridge would be made with union labor and U.S. steel.

Gov. Wes Moore and President Joe Biden walk out of the Maryland Transportation Authority Police Headquarters in Dundalk for a press conference on Friday, April 5, 2024. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

Lawmakers have said they will seek to recoup the costs fronted by taxpayers once investigators determine responsibility for the disaster. Previous U.S. bridge collapses where design firms, boat captains or other parties were found liable for damages suggest that process could be lengthy and unsuccessful.

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The FBI recently boarded the container ship Dali as part of an ongoing criminal probe to investigate whether the crew was aware of any issues that led to the ship losing power while approaching the shipping channel underneath the bridge. The National Transportation Safety Board is also investigating liability and will make a series of recommendations for all parties involved; its investigations typically take between one to two years.

The state had an insurance policy on the Key Bridge that will lead to a $350 million payout. Wiedefeld said that he doesn’t anticipate any snags in the process of claiming the money that Maryland will ultimately use to help pay back the federal government.

State transportation officials will host an industry forum on May 7 as they begin engaging potential contractors; Wiedefeld said they plan to pursue a “progressive design build” — meaning the state will have substantial control in developing the design alongside the contractor — and anticipates bids from both U.S.-based and international firms. An Italian company has already released its proposed design and shared it with The Baltimore Banner.

Wiedefeld said a more modern cable-stayed structure will replace the continuous truss bridge that connected Hawkins Point and Sollers Point in Southeast Baltimore for 47 years. The former Key Bridge was the same type as its older and larger companion, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. Wiedefeld’s office made their cost estimates using similar builds, like ongoing projects in New York and Texas, as guides.

When a span of Tampa, Florida’s Sunshine Skyway Bridge — which bore a striking resemblance to the Key Bridge —collapsed in 1980 after being struck by a shipping vessel, it was replaced by a cable-stayed bridge. Other nearby cable-stayed bridges include the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal bridge along Delaware’s Route 1 and the Indian River Inlet bridge along Delaware’s coast.

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Bodies of five of the six construction workers presumed dead in the disaster have been recovered. All six were Maryland residents and immigrants from Mexico and Central America.

Salvage crews have worked for more than a month to remove hundreds of tons of mangled steel from the shipping channel and to open temporary pathways for some ships to come and go. Officials plan to have the Dali refloated and able to return to the Port of Baltimore next week.

Baltimore Banner staff writer Pamela Wood contributed to this report.

Daniel Zawodny covers transportation for the The Baltimore Banner as a corps member with Report For America. He is a Baltimore area native and graduated with his master's degree in journalism from American University in 2021. He is bilingual in English and Spanish and previously covered immigration issues.

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