Work Speeds Ahead on Replacing Century-Old Bridges With Tunnel

Minn. Gov. Orders Bridge Inspections After Collapse

Fri August 03, 2007 - National Edition
Ryan J. Foley - ASSOCIATED PRESS



MINNEAPOLIS (AP) Gov. Tim Pawlenty ordered an immediate inspection Aug. 2 of all Minnesota bridges that have a design like the one that collapsed Wednesday in Minneapolis. Pawlenty said he did not know how many bridges have that design.

The eight-lane Interstate 35W bridge, a major Minneapolis artery, was in the midst of repairs when it buckled during the evening rush hour. Dozens of cars plummeted more than 60 ft. (18 m) into the Mississippi River, killing at least five people and injuring 79.

"We have one of the better or best bridge inspection programs in the country. ... However, that’s little consolation when you have a horrific tragedy like this event," Pawlenty said. "The first thing we’re going to do is make sure that we immediately inspect and check all bridges of this design and that fall into this category on the assessment scale."

In 2005, the 40-year-old bridge had been rated as "structurally deficient" and possibly in need of replacement, according to a federal database. The span rated 50 on a scale of 100 for structural stability in that review, Transportation Secretary Mary Peters said.

Pawlenty issued his order as divers searched the Mississippi River for more bodies entombed in cars submerged in seven feet of water and trapped beneath twisted steel and the concrete slabs of the collapsed bridge.

The collapsed bridge is just blocks from the heart of Minneapolis, near tourist attractions like the new Guthrie Theater and the Stone Arch Bridge. The steel-arched bridge built in 1967 rose about 64 ft. (19.5 m) above the river and stretched about 1,900 ft. (579 m) across the water.

Divers took down license plate numbers Aug. 2 for authorities to track down the vehicles’ owners. Getting the vehicles out was expected to take several days and involve moving around very large, heavy pieces of bridge.

National Transportation Safety Board chairman Mark Rosenker and 19 investigators arrived in Minneapolis to begin what Rosenker said would be a "complex investigation’ requiring them to assemble crumbled bits of the bridge like a jigsaw puzzle.

Peters said the 2005 inspection did not mean the bridge presented a danger.

"Minnesota has a very good bridge inspection program,’ she said at the same news conference where Pawlenty ordered the emergency inspections.

Pawlenty’s spokesman Brian McClung said the governor also asked the Transportation Department to "put more people out there and beef up inspections.’

Rep. Jim Oberstar, a Minnesota Democrat who chairs the House Transportation Committee, said he would introduce legislation Aug. 2 to direct a minimum of $250 million to Minnesota to help replace the highway bridge. Oberstar said he would try to get the bill through the House the same day.

"I am hopeful we can get this to the Senate in time for them to pass it before the August recess begins,’ he said in a prepared statement.

Oberstar said the collapse shows the need to invest in the nation’s transportation infrastructure. According to his office, up to 30 percent of the nation’s bridges that receive federal funding are structurally deficient to some degree.