Minn. Mayor Cautions Officials about Safety Issues in Bridge Repair

August 15, 2007

The mayor and a key state lawmaker on Monday cautioned that the Minnesota transportation officials’ swift timetable to replace the collapsed interstate bridge could overlook safety and the unique elements necessary to make it a memorial.

“I believe a large number of people want this bridge to symbolize the rebuilding of a community in some way,” Mayor R.T. Rybak told The Associated Press. “That does not seem to be a significant part of MNDOT’s goal at this point.”

On Tuesday, Department of Transportation officials were to release preliminary designs for the new bridge, which the agency has said it wants to build with five lanes in each direction by the end of next year. The old bridge had four each way.

While politicians wrangled over the future bridge, recovery work continued at the failed bridge. Navy divers returned to the water about 6:15 a.m., still seeking the bodies of four missing motorists presumed killed in the collapse. Nine people are confirmed dead.

The residue of weekend thunderstorms upriver continued to slow divers. The Mississippi River was moving faster than usual, kicking up debris and reducing visibility. When divers were pulled out of the water occasionally, the time was used to remove cars, and Col. Michael Chesney, an Army spokesman, said they might begin removing bridge decking. If so, he said, that would allow divers to reach new spots in the debris pile.

Meanwhile, Sen. Steve Murphy, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said he worried transportation officials were “rushing headlong” into rebuilding the bridge. He said making the timetable the top priority could mean shortcuts that compromise the bridge’s safety and keep traffic nearby from flowing smoothly.

“They could throw up that bridge and only spend $250 million, but 10 years from now we might be back investing another $250 million in it so it functions the way we want,” said Murphy, of Red Wing. “Let’s not build it fast and not to last. Let’s build it to last, period.”

Lucy Kender, a spokeswoman for the DOT, said speed does not have to equal lower quality in the bridge replacement.

“This bridge, on a major interstate in a major metropolitan area, is a key link to the whole interstate program throughout the entire nation,” Kender said. “Our economy, our society here, needs that bridge back up.”

The mayor said pushing the new bridge’s timetable too hard could mean missing the chance to more smoothly route traffic from the bridge and freeway into nearby downtown Minneapolis.

Rybak and Murphy both disagree with Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau, who also serves as the transportation commissioner, over whether the new bridge should be equipped with tracks for a light rail train.

A single north-south light rail line currently runs from downtown to the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. The state is planning to expand the system by adding an east-west line to connect the downtowns of the Twin Cities, and some have suggested laying it across the new bridge would be cost-efficient.

Molnau, a long-standing opponent of light rail, wrote a letter to Gov. Tim Pawlenty over the weekend recommending that light rail not be included on the new bridge because it would take too long to study whether it’s feasible.

“It’s possible we could save millions of dollars by putting it on or next to this bridge” rather than grafting it onto an existing bridge, Rybak said. “Now is the time to ask that question.”

Pawlenty’s spokesman, Brian McClung, said the governor wants to focus first on getting the span replaced with federal emergency dollars, in “as expeditious a manner as possible.” Once that’s in motion, McClung said, the state can consider related improvements.

Associated Press writer Martiga Lohn contributed to this report.

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