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Minn. legislators fear quick fix in replacing bridge

Some are uneasy state is planning a new span when the cause of the collapse is still unclear.

August 16, 2007|P.J. Huffstutter | Times Staff Writer

ST. PAUL, MINN. — An accelerated schedule for replacing the Interstate 35W bridge though Minneapolis has led state lawmakers and residents to question how plans for a new bridge can move forward before it is clear why the old one fell down.

For more than two hours Wednesday, legislators peppered transportation officials with questions about what happened Aug. 1 and about the Minnesota Department of Transportation's proposed design to replace this key artery into downtown Minneapolis.

Some legislators were alarmed by a state transportation official's contention that the department didn't need to know the specific cause behind the bridge's collapse before building on the same site.

"How exactly is all this going to work? Who's in charge? You're not telling us and we don't know," state Sen. Ann Rest told transportation officials at a joint hearing of the House and Senate transportation committees. "In the equation between building this bridge fast, and building it right, that equal sign in between has a big question mark over it."

National Transportation Safety Board investigators are looking into the collapse, and recovery divers are searching for four people still missing after their vehicles plunged into the Mississippi River. Nine people are confirmed dead.

Nevertheless, Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty and state transportation officials outlined preliminary reconstruction plans this week: The bridge would be 10 lanes wide, two lanes wider than the old bridge, and would be completed by the end of next year, in about half the time it took to build the original in the 1960s.

But most other details remained vague, which has led to rival proposals and intense disputes over what the bridge should look like, who is in charge of the project and who will bear the brunt of the cost to build it.

"Nothing, absolutely nothing is normal in this situation," Khani Sahebjam, metro district engineer with the Minnesota Department of Transportation, testified at the hearing. "Our goal is to find a solution quickly."

In a statement presented at the hearing, U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) said: "Many people have expressed to me their extreme dismay at the frenzied rush to replace the bridge. A tragedy of this magnitude demands that we take a collective breath, and assess the shortcomings of the old structure and the challenges of our future transportation needs."

Last week, NTSB investigators announced that they had uncovered a possible design problem with the bridge's gusset plates, the pieces that connect the angled steel beams that underscored the bridge's frame.

Federal investigators are also looking into whether the weight of the construction equipment and the materials being used to repair the bridge at the time of the collapse also may have played a role, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Attorneys for some of the victims filed a petition in federal court seeking access to the disaster site so their own experts could gather evidence. A judge rejected their bid Wednesday.

Hundreds of residents flocked to the nearby Dinkytown Bicycle Connection bridge Wednesday morning to get a clear view of the wreckage, before the city later closed it.

"I drove over that bridge almost every day, to visit friends and get across town," said college student Kathleen Hardesty, 24, who snapped pictures of the crumpled concrete and twisted steel beams with her cellphone camera. "I had to see for myself how bad it was. Now that I'm here, I wish I hadn't come. It freaks me out to think that I could have been on that bridge."

While Congress has authorized as much as $250 million in federal emergency relief funds, the money -- if allocated -- can be used only to replace the old bridge, said Abby McKenzie, director of the Minnesota Department of Transportation's Office of Investment Management.

But it may not cover costs for an expanded version of the original, such as the plan being pushed by Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak. Rybak, who has repeatedly warned that a speedy timetable to replace the collapsed bridge could overlook safety issues, has proposed that the new span accommodate a light-rail transit system.

Though the state transportation department has the funds to cover the cost incurred by the bridge collapse, McKenzie told legislators, "the total amount of the budget could reach $300 million or more."

If that happened, she said, the state would need to find the money elsewhere -- possibly from state or local budgets.

Because of such uncertainty, "speed is not the most important thing in this case," state Sen. Rod Skoe said at the hearing. "Will it meet the needs of this community? Will it be safe? Because when you start pouring concrete, it's hard to change direction halfway through the process."

On Tuesday, the Legislature launched its own investigative group to review the transportation department's policies and practices, and to see whether any of them may have contributed to the tragedy.

But transportation officials and other advocates for a speedier plan say they are simply trying to address mounting logistic questions, particularly regarding regional traffic patterns and access in and out of downtown Minneapolis.

Key concerns include how to reroute as many as 200,000 vehicles that crossed the bridge each day, and how to handle transportation needs for the Republican National Convention next summer.

Residents say they have felt the ripple effects on their daily lives.

"I'm just dreading what the traffic is going to be like after Labor Day, when all the kids are back in school," said David Wreastle, 34, an entrepreneur who works with wireless technology companies. "We Minnesotans are sensible folks, and we'll do what we need to do to work around this. But it doesn't mean I won't get cranky about it."

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p.j.huffstutter@latimes.com

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