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Transportation Secretary Buttigieg gives update on Baltimore Key Bridge

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg was supposed to be in Wyoming and Montana this week, touring infrastructure projects. Then the massive Francis Scott Key Bridge collapsed in Baltimore in the wee hours of Tuesday morning, and Buttigieg's plans went out the window. Instead, he has spent the week working the phone, briefing the president, visiting the port, grappling with the supply chain challenge and now taking our call. Secretary Buttigieg, good to speak with you again.

PETE BUTTIGIEG: Thank you. Good to be with you.

KELLY: Let's start with the port. It is the top vehicle handling port in the U.S. When you last spoke with NPR, which was two days ago - thank you for that - you told us that there's nothing like Baltimore in terms of capacity. Can you give me an example or two to illustrate what the scale of disruption is when a port of this importance is not usable?

BUTTIGIEG: Almost all of the terminals of this port are inside of that bridge and therefore inaccessible. The good news is that we are finding that many ports along the East Coast have capacity to absorb container traffic and some of the other bulk cargo. The challenge is that the Port of Baltimore is specialized, especially when it comes to vehicles. It's not only that the vehicles are ordinarily coming and going from the port, but parts of them in some cases are actually finished at manufacturing facilities connected to the port. And then there's the matter, of course, of getting them to where they need to go. So all of this is substantially disruptive.

KELLY: Are you starting to get your arms around what a timeline would look like to reopen Baltimore?

BUTTIGIEG: We still haven't heard a definitive estimate. The Army Corps of Engineers and the Coast Guard are working on that. What I do know is the largest lift assist vessel on the East Coast is now in place with two others that have also been tasked to help and are making their way to the site. They will be able to better assess the timing once those are in place and once some of the damage assessments are complete too.

KELLY: To when you say lift assist, this is what, like a giant crane that would literally be trying to lift the bridge out of the way?

BUTTIGIEG: Exactly. Picture essentially a giant floating crane on a barge. And the proportions of this are really difficult to describe or to fathom. They need to clear the wreckage, eventually clear that ship and clear anything that is not visible below the waterline that could have fallen or could have shifted and could impede the safe vessel traffic.

KELLY: So there's the clearing effort. Let me turn you to the rebuilding effort because I gather there's some 30,000 vehicles that depend on crossing this bridge every day or depended. I guess we should change that to past tense. Do we have any timeline for getting that bridge back up?

BUTTIGIEG: What I can say is that we are already underway on the initial activities that will go to that reconstruction and that it's going to be a long road. We have not yet received a timeline. Again, there are things we don't yet know about the condition of the parts leading up to the stand that did collapse. But yesterday, our department was able to authorize the first $60 million to support things like debris removal, demolition, emergency repairs to stabilize the scene and some of the first steps toward design and reconstruction and procurement for that bridge. This is a bridge that took about five years to put up in the first instance...

KELLY: So we're looking at years, likely, it sounds like.

BUTTIGIEG: Yeah, it's certainly not going to happen overnight.

KELLY: Yeah. That $60 million you just mentioned is obviously a lot of money. Is it a drop in the bucket for what is going to be needed to eventually rebuild this back to a standard that it's usable and the port is open and functional?

BUTTIGIEG: Yes. At best, this is a down payment. This comes through a program called Emergency Relief that our department has for situations like this, where there is an urgent and quick need to get dollars out the door into this kind of reconstruction. We still don't know what the ultimate total cost will be. You know, we want to make sure that the financing is not any kind of obstacle. So our personnel are working side-by-side with the Maryland DOT under the leadership of Governor Wes Moore, which will be running point and delivering the ultimate reconstruction of the bridge.

KELLY: Another question on the ship. We have heard from numerous engineers on our air this week. They are all in agreement that there's no way you can build a bridge that could withstand being hit by a ship that big going that fast, which raises questions in my mind of, should ships that big be going that fast so close to critical infrastructure?

BUTTIGIEG: Well, of course, this ship should never have come near the pier, let alone impacted it. And how that could have happened is part of what the NTSB's investigation will assess. But the reality is American shipping depends on large vessels. It is size - of a class called Neo-Panamax. It is designed just barely to fit through the Panama Canal. I think many Americans would be astonished by the sheer mass of the ships that we count on every day, but we do count on them. And our supply chains and many things that we're used to as Americans really rely on this system of shipping, which is, of course, ordinarily very safe, but where there are a lot of understandable questions coming up.

KELLY: Right. And if we're thinking about trying to rebuild this bridge better, stronger, strengthen existing bridges, cargo ships like the one you're describing are not likely to get smaller. So what can be done to prevent something like this happening again?

BUTTIGIEG: Well, there's really two ways to look at it. One is to look at the ship. The other is to look at the bridge. And I do expect NTSB's final report will give us insights for the future of both shipping and bridge building. This bridge was built in the 1970s. In 1980, there was a tragic impact that took down a bridge in Florida. Dozens of lives were lost, and people were injured. And that led to some insights. As you might imagine, the way we build bridges in the 2020s is not the same as we did in the 1970s. And we need to learn, for the sake of the 2030s, '40s and '50s, all of the lessons of what happened here in March of 2024.

KELLY: That is Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg. Thank you so much for taking the time.

BUTTIGIEG: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and CNN.com in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.
Linah Mohammad
Prior to joining NPR in 2022, Mohammad was a producer on The Washington Post's daily flagship podcast Post Reports, where her work was recognized by multiple awards. She was honored with a Peabody award for her work on an episode on the life of George Floyd.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
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