State transportation officials on Tuesday defended their maintenance record on the Interstate 35W bridge before its collapse last August, rebutting a conclusion in a Legislature-mandated report that tight budgets played a role in those decisions.

In a day that mixed images of the new bridge with the harsh reminders of last year's tragedy, the Minnesota Department of Transportation hosted key lawmakers on a tour of the $234 million replacement bridge and then jousted with some of the same legislators over whether the agency is making the necessary internal changes to ensure that another bridge collapse does not occur.

The day began when House and Senate transportation leaders stood looking at the new bridge and marveled at the speed of the project, which may be completed by mid-September, three months ahead of schedule. "This is fantastic," said Sen. Steve Murphy, the chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, who snapped pictures of the bridge during a tour.

But the praise for the new bridge was often overshadowed by the politics surrounding the old bridge's collapse. Sen. Jim Carlson, DFL-Eagan, said he could only imagine the pressure being exerted so that "a couple of buses of Republicans" could triumphantly drive across a new bridge during the Republican National Convention in early September.

Pawlenty: Earlier report was off-base

Speaking to reporters earlier in the day, Gov. Tim Pawlenty said a legislative report linking a lack of funding at MnDOT to a lack of maintenance of the collapsed bridge was off-base.

"There may have been concerns relative to maintenance but they are unable yet to make any connection to maintenance decisions and the actual cause of the bridge collapse," Pawlenty said.

The governor reminded the public that the National Transportation Safety Board is conducting the formal investigation into the collapse, and that conclusions should not be drawn until its report is issued later this year. The NTSB has indicated that under-designed gusset plates, a flaw that would date to the bridge's construction in the 1960s, may have played a pivotal role in the collapse.

By late afternoon, Murphy concluded a meeting of a joint legislative panel investigating the bridge collapse by criticizing Pawlenty's "ability to go out of his way to inject politics where it should not be."

Tuesday's hearing was billed as a chance for MnDOT to rebut an unflattering report issued last month by Gray Plant Mooty, a Minneapolis law firm hired by legislators to investigate what changes needed to be made by MnDOT in the wake of the collapse. The report said that funding shortages may have played a role in MnDOT's decision-making and that the agency struggled with a confusing chain of command regarding who decided what to do when a bridge was found to have problems. MnDOT, according to the report, also may have missed opportunities to detect critical problems with the 35W bridge before the collapse.

In a two-hour response that at times irritated some legislators, MnDOT officials said many of the suggested changes were already being adopted by the agency and in some instances said Gray Plant Mooty misunderstood the complexities of bridge maintenance and engineering.

Gray Plant Mooty investigators had probed whether MnDOT should have more aggressively followed the advice of its consultant, URS Inc., which at one point recommended a steel plating retrofit of the bridge. But in a letter released Tuesday, the agency said URS had backed away from the retrofit plan and that neither that plan or a redecking of the bridge "would have addressed the inadequacy of the gusset plates cited by the NTSB."

After answering a series of questions, Khani Sahebjam, a new MnDOT deputy commissioner, bluntly confronted the legislators. "It's obvious with the bridge falling down the trust that you folks and the public has in us has diminished. I can't sit here -- you can't sit here -- and go back and forth, point by point," he said. "Please, trust us on this."

Senator cites 'far more red flags'

But Sen. Kathy Saltzman, DFL-Woodbury, said that she did not feel MnDOT was taking the Gray Plant Mooty findings seriously enough, and that the law firm had found "far more red flags" as to how MnDOT operated than the agency was acknowledging.

"[I don't think] there's been really any acknowledgement of the many things ... that are very, very serious," she said.

With the GOP convention only nine weeks away, both MnDOT and a Pawlenty spokesman denied that there has been any attempt to finish the bridge by the convention.

"We're not focusing on any convention," Jon Chiglo, MnDOT's project manager for the new bridge, told legislators during their tour.

Carlson, the DFL legislator from Eagan, said he doesn't believe that. Carlson said DFLers would be "jealous" if Republicans were able to showcase the nearly-complete bridge during the convention, but said it would be an uplifting moment for most Minnesotans and a chance to "kind of [put] the old bridge behind us."

"I'd like to be in one of those [buses] that goes across," he said.

Staff writer Mark Brunswick contributed to this report. Mike Kaszuba • 651-222-1673