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Vehicles are left stranded after a bridge collapsed along Forbes Avenue in Pittsburgh, on Jan. 28.Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

The dramatic evidence that Joe Biden needed to illustrate the urgency of his massive infrastructure program fell from the sky – literally but not tragically – six hours before the President touched down here to campaign for the signature program of his administration.

About 10 were injured, none seriously, when the heavily trafficked Fern Hollow Bridge that spans part of Frick Park collapsed, buttressing Mr. Biden’s promises and giving concrete meaning to the “build back” part of his “Build Back Better” theme, a phrase that has also been employed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Mr. Biden’s speech was planned a week before the collapse of the bridge in Pittsburgh, a city that prides itself on having 446 bridges, which is more than any city in the world, including Venice. The three rivers that converge here have made bridge crossings part of everyday life for more than two centuries, ever since the first bridge was erected in the city in 1818 amid cliffs and creeks, hollows and deep riverbeds.

“We’re going to fix them all,” the President said at an impromptu stop at the damaged bridge before his planned remarks.

Mr. Biden signed the landmark US$1-trillion infrastructure measure two months ago but, down in the polls and under pressure from Democrats to demonstrate that the party’s control of the White House and Capitol Hill has produced positive results, he travelled here in an effort to restore confidence in his leadership and bolster the Democrats’ chances in this year’s midterm congressional elections.

“His visit to Pittsburgh on the very day of a major bridge collapse highlights the importance of working together to ensure that our infrastructure meets 21st-century standards,” said Clifford Levine, a prominent local Democrat who was affiliated with the 2020 Biden campaign in Pennsylvania and who lives about three kilometres from the bridge.

Speaking at the site, Mr. Biden said the infrastructure bill “is going to be a gigantic change” for 43,000 bridges across the country. The measure sets aside US$1.6-billion for bridge repair in Pennsylvania.

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This collapse in the Regent Square section of Pittsburgh – a pure coincidence, though conspiracy theorists may seize on it and suggest nefarious connections with the Biden White House – almost certainly will bring into focus the need for infrastructure improvements far from Pittsburgh. The bridge was inspected less than a year ago and was deemed to be in poor to satisfactory condition.

“The bridge I travel across twice a day and walk under nearly weekly is now a national symbol of the importance of funding our infrastructure,” said Dana Brown, a Chatham University political scientist who lives down the street. “The small number of injuries allows us time to really reflect on how important funding our government services is, and the impact of deferring maintenance.”

The bridge, which is on the popular 61B route that goes past Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh, is such a part of the mental landscape of Pittsburgh that it hardly attracted notice until Friday morning.

“Most people probably never think twice about the bridge, maybe even forgetting at times that it’s a bridge at all,” said Erika Strassburger, a member of the Pittsburgh city council who often goes jogging under the bridge on a nearby running path. “It’s only when I find myself on a run or a walk that I occasionally have stopped and noticed the beauty of Frick Park below, or the bridge from the park trails underneath, that I remember how high above the ravine it actually sits.”

The image of an articulated tandem bus resting on the wreckage of the bridge was a striking symbol of America’s crumbling infrastructure. Mr. Biden stared at the teetering bus mere hours after a human chain had assembled in the cold morning air to retrieve several people from the dangling vehicle.

This scene stands as further confirmation of the much-cited political maxim, attributed to the late House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O’Neill Jr., that all politics is local. The reminder came into sharp relief this week at the corner of Forbes and South Braddock Avenues, where the bridge both connected and divided.

Only 50 years old, the bridge had linked the city-council districts of Cory O’Connor, a conventional white politician and the son of a beloved former mayor, with Reverend Ricky Burgess, a populist Black figure. At the same time, the very presence and prominence of bridges here discourages some local residents from leaving their own enclaves; those who live in Mount Lebanon, an upscale suburb that’s demographically indistinguishable from Westmount, Forest Hill and West Vancouver, sometimes shy away from crossing either the Liberty Bridge or the Fort Pitt Bridge into the centre city.

“Bridges are an iconic part of the history of Pittsburgh,” said Daniel Gilman, who until a month ago was the mayor’s chief of staff. “The timing of this is unusual, but the need to keep up these bridges is real.”

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