It Can Take Years to Repair Bridges After a Collapse

The collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge early on Tuesday wiped out a roadway that tens of thousands of people used to travel to and from Baltimore every day, and it is difficult to say how long it will take to rebuild.

Gov. Wes Moore of Maryland called the reconstruction a “long-term build” at a news conference on Tuesday and said that the authorities were still focused on rescuing people.

The repair time after catastrophic bridge collapses has varied over the past few decades. The episodes are difficult to compare because of differences in the structure of each bridge and the damage, and in the surrounding environment.

One of the deadliest bridge crashes in American history was at the Big Bayou Canot Bridge in Alabama in 1993. A towboat struck a rail bridge on a foggy September morning and threw the train tracks out of alignment.

Minutes later, an Amtrak passenger train derailed as it crossed the water, killing 47 people. The rebuilding efforts began within days.

In 2001, barges struck the Queen Isabella Causeway bridge that connected Port Isabel to South Padre Island in Texas, killing eight people and sending a section of the structure plummeting into a lagoon in the Gulf of Mexico. Much of the bridge remained intact after the collision, and it was repaired and reinforced in about two months.

In 2007, an Interstate 35 bridge over the Mississippi River near Minneapolis collapsed under the weight of rush hour traffic, killing 13 people. The disaster appeared to have been caused by structural issues, not a crash. That bridge was rebuilt in a little over a year.

And last year, an overpass section of Interstate 95 in Philadelphia collapsed after a fiery crash involving a tanker loaded with gasoline, killing one person. A temporary roadway opened within two weeks. In 2022, a bridge collapse over a ravine in Pittsburgh injured at least 10 people. The bridge reopened within a year.

To some experts, the catastrophe in Baltimore recalled one at the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in Florida more than 40 years ago. The bridge tumbled into the water near Tampa in 1980 after a freighter hit a support column. The collapse killed 35 people.

About seven years passed before a new bridge opened over Tampa Bay.

Any attempt to rebuild a bridge as long as the Francis Scott Key, which is 1.6 miles, would probably also be a multiyear effort, said Benjamin W. Schafer, a professor of engineering at Johns Hopkins.

“There isn’t a temporary bridge structure to be put up at those span lengths,” he said, adding that search and rescue operations would be the priority, followed by wreckage removal so that ships can pass through.

President Biden addressed the collapse in remarks on Tuesday, calling the Francis Scott Key Bridge “one of the most important elements” supporting the U.S. economy in the northeast. Mr. Biden said that he expected the federal government to pay for the “entire cost” of bridge repairs.

Katie Rogers contributed reporting.

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