President Joe Biden pledged Tuesday that the federal government will pay for the entire cost of rebuilding the Francis Scott Key Bridge that collapsed into the Patapsco River after being struck by a massive cargo ship.

“It is my intention that the federal government will pay for the entire cost of reconstructing that bridge, and I expect the Congress to support my effort,” Biden said.

The timeline and price tag for rebuilding the bridge — an important crossing over the Patapsco River — is unknown and will likely take time to figure out.

Biden, speaking at the White House, said he told local and state officials that the federal government would send all assistance necessary.

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“I’ve directed my team to move heaven and earth to reopen the port and rebuild the bridge as soon as humanly possible. And we’re going to work hand-in-hand to support Maryland in whatever they ask for. We’re going to work with our partners in Congress make sure the state gets the support its needs,” Biden said.

The president added: “We’re not leaving until the job gets done.”

Biden said it was possible the ship’s owners could be tapped to pay for the reconstruction, “but we are not going to wait for that to happen. We are going to pay for it to get the bridge rebuilt and open.”

Without the promise of federal aid, the cost of the project could have added a complicating layer to an already-tight financial situation for Maryland’s state government.

And the president’s pledge comes at an important time, as state lawmakers are entering the final phase of negotiations over Gov. Wes Moore’s proposed $63 billion plan for the budget year that starts July 1.

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Before the president spoke at midday, state officials were not yet ready to start figuring out how to pay for rebuilding the bridge. Instead, they focused on the potential loss of life. At least six construction workers remained missing; two others were pulled from the water shortly after the collapse.

“Today we’re just focused on the first responders and the families affected and hoping everyone gets to safety. That’s all we can do today,” Del. Ben Barnes, a Prince George’s County Democrat who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, said Tuesday morning.

His counterpart across the hall of the State House, Sen. Guy Guzzone, said: “Today, as everyone has been saying, I’m just focusing on the folks who, unfortunately, were involved in all of this and hoping for the best.”

Sen. Guy Guzzone, a Howard County Democrat, sits in the Senate Chamber of the Maryland State House on March 15, 2024. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

Guzzone and Barnes had been scheduled to lead a conference committee of delegates and senators to hash out differences in each chamber’s view of the budget on Tuesday afternoon, but that was delayed for at least one day.

Senate President Bill Ferguson told reporters in the afternoon that he was grateful for the president’s pledge, but he cautioned there is a long journey ahead to figure out the details.

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“I was certainly pleased. I think there’s going to be a lot of things to be sorted out. I think it’s going to be complicated over time,” Ferguson said in his Annapolis office, before heading back to the command center at the bridge.

Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat whose district includes the bridge, said the Key Bridge is an important transportation route for the northeast corridor and the Port of Baltimore plays a vital role in the nation’s commerce — so it’s appropriate for the federal government to pay to get both the bridge and the port back up and running.

“This is not just an issue for the City of Baltimore or the State of Maryland. This is a national catastrophe,” Ferguson said.

The promise of aid is helpful, but there’s work ahead, particularly as lawmakers figure out a long-term, sustainable plan to fund the state’s highways, bridges and transit systems, he said.

“It’s added a lot of uncertainty into what was already an uncertain environment,” Ferguson said.

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Maryland is already facing tight budget times caused by the ending of federal pandemic aid that inflated the budget in past years, a sluggish employment picture and looming commitments to pay for an ambitious public education improvement plan.

And there’s not enough money to pay for all of the anticipated projects in the state’s long-term transportation construction budget.

Moore’s budget proposal, as introduced in January, kept the budget balanced with targeted cuts and no tax increases.

The main doors to the Senate chamber of the Maryland State House are closed off while the senate is in session on March 15, 2024. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

Senate leaders have been firm in their commitment not to enact any broad-based tax, fee or toll increases for the next budget. The Senate, instead, wants to rely on some reshuffling some funds to keep it in balance, as required by the state constitution.

House of Delegates leaders, meanwhile, have advanced plans to fully legalize online gambling, close a corporate tax “loophole” by requiring multistate companies to calculate their taxes owed in Maryland differently, require the state’s transportation authority to raise more money from tolls, as well as raise more targeted fees than the Senate proposed.

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Leaders of the two chambers are facing an April 1 deadline to agree to terms on a budget, and though deadlines are often flexible in Annapolis, they certainly need to pass a budget before adjourning the 90-day session on April 8.

Lawmakers in both the House and the Senate offered prayers for the victims of the collapse, the first responders and others involved.

Del. Michael Griffith noted the “very sad and solemn day” as he offered the opening prayer at the House’s morning session.

The Republican representing Cecil and Harford counties asked God to “please keep everyone impacted by the collapse of the Key Bridge in your hands and in our hearts and in our minds — especially those and the families of those who may have lost souls in this terrible tragedy.”

Sen. Johnny Ray Salling, a Baltimore County Republican, sits in the Senate Chamber of the Maryland State House on March 15, 2024. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

In the Senate, Sen. Johnny Ray Salling, a Baltimore County Republican whose district includes the bridge, asked his colleagues to keep those affected by the tragedy top of mind.

”There’s a lot of people in pain right now,” he said.

But he expressed his hopes that together federal and local partners will make something good come of the tragedy. ”We can conquer this, and we can do great things,” he said.

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