President Biden speaks on infrastructure plan in Pittsburgh on same day as bridge collapse

The Fern Hollow Bridge fell just hours before the president’s visit, prompting concerns about Pittsburgh’s decaying infrastructure


Photo by Jake Dabkowski

President Joe Biden speaking at Mill 19 at CMU on Jan. 28, 2022.

Written By Jake Dabkowski and Zack Lawry

On Friday, Jan. 28, President Joe Biden visited Pittsburgh to promote the Build Back Better plan, a major piece of legislation his administration has been pushing to get passed. The act has passed in the House of Representatives, but has stagnated in the Senate.

Biden spoke at Mill 19, a Carnegie Mellon University facility, to discuss infrastructure as part of a recent Whitehouse initiative for the President to leave Washington D.C. more frequently. Two Point Park Globe editors attended the speech as members of the press.

“I’ve talked about it every time I’ve come to Pittsburgh, and we finally got it done: a Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, including the largest investment in our nation’s bridges since… Eisenhower put together the Interstate Highway System,” Biden said. “This was the first time in the country’s history that we dedicated a national program to repair and upgrade bridges. And it’s about time.”

However, just hours before Biden’s scheduled arrival, ten people were injured when the Fern Hollow Bridge collapsed in Frick Park. The bridge, located 3.5 miles from the site of Biden’s speech at Mill 19, collapsed around 6:30 a.m.

The collapse caused Biden to revise his planned visit, pushing back his arrival at Mill 19 as he instead stopped at the site of the collapse to witness the damage first-hand.

“I want to thank the President because he pivoted. He came to the Fern Hollow Bridge today, where we had a collapse of our bridge,” Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey said. “When we’re talking about investing in infrastructure, when we’re talking about how important it is – for him to come and say, “I want to come and see it for myself,” as the mayor of this city it made me feel proud that the President of the United States had our back.”

Gainey was not the only Pennsylvania Democrat with high praise for Biden. Several prominent local Democrats – including Mayor Gainey, Senator Bob Casey, Governor Tom Wolf and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald – addressed Biden’s visit and voiced and spoke about the state’s infrastructure.

“He has not forgotten about Western Pennsylvania,” County Executive Fitzgerald said. “He continues to come and invest in us, and invest in our future, and, for that, we are very grateful.”

Additionally, Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo discussed her experience as part of the Biden administration, and CMU President Farnam Jahanian welcomed him to the school.

Biden took the stage after 3 p.m., entering alongside Jojo Burgess, a representative from the United States Steelworkers.

“This region – the Pittsburgh region – benefits from this Act,” Burgess said.

Following an introduction from Burgess, Biden spoke about that morning’s collapse of the Fern Hollow Bridge, as well as other potential infrastructure failures that could occur in the future. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, there are 175 bridges in Allegheny County that are in poor condition.

“Let me just talk a little bit about what… many of us saw this morning. A bridge more than 50 years old… collapsed right here in Pittsburgh. It had been rated in poor condition for the past ten years,” Biden said. “What you all know, if you don’t, you should know, there are another 3,300 bridges here in Pennsylvania, some of which are just as old and just as decrepit… as that bridge was, including here in Pittsburgh, the City of Bridges.”

Biden was not alone in his concerns about Pittsburgh’s infrastructure, as a similar sentiment was voiced by several of the day’s other speakers, such as Rich Fitzgerald.

“We need this bill badly, and we need to be proactive,” Fitzgerald said.

Additionally, concerns about infrastructure nation-wide and aspirations of the Build Back Better plan were also shared by Chris Labash, Professor of Communication and Innovation at Carnegie Mellon University.

“The unfortunate [but thankfully not deadly] bridge collapse clearly underscores the need for the President’s Build Back Better initiative,” Labash said. “His visit to Carnegie Mellon’s advanced manufacturing, AI, and other centers underscores the fact that we as a country can do more than simply build back, we can actually build back better.”

“We’ve got to get on with it. We’ve got to move,” the president said. “The next time, we don’t need headlines saying that someone was killed when the next bridge collapses. We’re going to rebuild that bridge, along with thousands of other bridges in Pennsylvania and across the country, because it’s in our interest for our own safety’s sake and it generates commerce in a way that we can’t do now.”

In addition to infrastructure, Biden also addressed concerns regarding America’s future, including a declining focus on research and development.

“The United States of America used to be ranked number one in the world in investing in the future. Now we rank number nine in research and development. China was number eight three decades ago; today, it’s number two. And other countries are catching up fast,” Biden said. “But we can and we must change that trajectory. We have an opportunity ahead of us right now. The House and Senate — the United States Congress and the United States Senate are working out a bill that’s going to provide an extra $90 billion for research and development, manufacturing all the elements of the supply chain needed to produce the end products. And this would help create more partnerships like the ones you have right here at Mill 19.”

Biden’s visit to Pittsburgh ultimately served to emphasize the Democratic Party’s belief in the necessity of the Build Back Better Act, using the collapse of the Fern Hollow Bridge to support their position.

“Here’s the bottom line – the United States is in a position to outcompete the rest of the world once again,” Biden said. “We’re at a real inflection point. Technology, society is changing, and we’ve always been ahead of the curve. We have an incredible opportunity ahead of us, but we still face tremendous challenges. But if we can keep coming together and invest in the backbone of this country, there’s no limit to what we can achieve.”