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Biden says federal government will fund Baltimore bridge rebuild

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Joe Biden pledged that the federal government will pay the full cost to rebuild the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore, one of the nation's busiest arteries that collapsed hours earlier on Tuesday after being struck by a massive freight ship.

“It's 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, speaking from the White House ahead of a trip to North Carolina.

A massive freight ship stacked high with containers smashed into a bridge while sailing out of Baltimore, Maryland, early on Tuesday, sending cars and people into the river below and closing one of the busiest ports on the U.S. Eastern Seaboard.

Rescuers pulled out two survivors, one of whom was hospitalized, and were searching for more in the Patapsco River after huge metal spans of the 1.6-mile (2.57 km) Francis Scott Key Bridge crumpled into the icy water at around 1:30 a.m. (0530 GMT).

"I know every minute in that circumstance feels like a lifetime,” Biden said to people who are still awaiting word on those missing after the collapse. The president said the search and rescue operation “is our top priority.”

The Francis Scott Key bridge was a main thoroughfare for drivers between New York and Washington who sought to avoid downtown Baltimore. It was one of three ways to cross the Baltimore Harbor, with a traffic volume of 31,000 cars per day or 11.3 million vehicles a year.

Biden, who called the collision a "terrible accident," was asked why the federal government should pick up the tab if the ship and its operator were potentially to blame.

"That could be but we're not going to wait for that to happen. We're going to pay for it to get the bridge rebuilt and opened," Biden said.

Large scale infrastructure projects are typically paid for by a combination of state and federal governments.

Biden said he would go to Baltimore “as quickly as I can,” but did not give exact timing.

(Reporting By Steve Holland and Jarrett Renshaw; Editing by Heather Timmons and Josie Kao)