State to get funds; death toll reaches 8

  • Article by: JIM FOTI, CURT BROWN and BILL MCAULIFFE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 10, 2007 - 9:37 PM

As $50 million in federal money was pledged to help in recovery efforts, a sorrow-filled wait ended with identification of Sadiya Sahal and her daughter.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters announced Friday that $50 million was on its way to Minnesota to help with cleanup, recovery, design work and traffic rerouting in the wake of the Interstate 35W bridge collapse.

President Bush "made it very clear that this bridge will not get stuck in red tape, and I am here to deliver on that pledge," said Peters, who spoke at the bridge wreckage site in the morning and at a Metro Transit garage in the afternoon. Peters has visited Minneapolis three times since the Aug. 1 bridge disaster.

Meanwhile, the official death count rose to eight with the identification of Sadiya Sahal, 23, of St. Paul, and her 22-month-old daughter, Hana Sahal. Both died of blunt-force injuries, according to the Hennepin County medical examiner.

"This is a very sad moment, but also a big relief to know the bodies have been recovered and released for burial," Dr. Mohamed Aden, a cousin of Sadiya Sahal, said Friday night. "I am with the father right now and he is crying."

Sahal and her husband, Mohamed, were expecting their second child in about four months.

Bridge plans under discussion

Peters was joined at the bridge site by Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, several members of the Minnesota congressional delegation and National Transportation Safety Board chairman Mark Rosenker.

Congressional representatives spoke of the need to build the bridge quickly but also in a way that meets the needs of the public. Late 2008 is the current target.

"Of course we want to cut that red tape," said U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, "but that does not mean cutting important environmental, safety and equal opportunity standards."

Bob McFarlin, assistant to the state transportation commissioner, said the department hopes to have a contract for bridge replacement awarded by mid-September. The emergency timetable allows the department to replace what was there, with design upgrades and accommodations for future traffic. Changes suggested for areas north and south of the bridge are considered "betterments," McFarlin said, which would be subject to longer review processes.

Some officials have suggested running a planned light-rail line across the new bridge instead of across the Washington Avenue bridge, but Peter Bell, chairman of the Metropolitan Council, said Friday that chances for that were "dim" because changing the line from its planned alignment would take too much time.

Others are not yet convinced. Gail Dorfman, a member of the Hennepin County Board, said many people at the county level think it would be shortsighted.

A train, too?

Meanwhile, suburban officials are also promoting a plan that could open the 40-mile Northstar commuter rail line from Big Lake to downtown Minneapolis a year early to help alleviate traffic congestion.

Tim Yantos, executive director of the Northstar Corridor Rail Development Authority, told Fridley officials Thursday that the Northstar line could be completed in October 2008, a year in advance of the November 2009 expected opening. He also said the authority is looking at a limited temporary program that could start in four months but not link up with the Hiawatha light-rail line.

Federal funding has not yet been approved, but U.S. Sens. Coleman and Amy Klobuchar have asked Peters to speed up approval of almost $160 million in federal funding for the line in light of the bridge disaster.

The $50 million being expedited by Peters just for the bridge replacement effort is part of the $250 million authorized by Congress last week for bridge replacement. That total was in addition to the $5 million in initial emergency aid and $5 million in emergency cash for transit approved by Congress, which Peters said Friday she had made available immediately.

Metro Transit said Friday that, for the first four days of this workweek, ridership originating at the 12 park-and-ride lots that offered free service, was up 33 percent. Bob Gibbons, agency spokesman, said it's the equivalent of taking 3,000 cars off area freeways.

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