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State's plans for new I-35W bridge include light rail

  • Article by: Jim Foti
  • Star Tribune
  • August 21, 2007 - 11:48 PM

With all 13 bodies recovered from the river and Navy divers heading home, plans to replace the collapsed Interstate 35W bridge picked up speed on several fronts Tuesday.

The state's preliminary plan for a new bridge officially landed at Minneapolis City Hall, and with it came the top item on the city's wish list: a directive from the governor to make the bridge light-rail-ready. The state is expected to cover the $20 million to $35 million additional cost.

The day also saw President Bush, who was in the Twin Cities on Tuesday, approve emergency federal aid to reimburse state and local agencies for bridge response expenses, which are estimated to have topped $10 million in Minneapolis alone. And federal officials gave the green light to cleanup crews to remove all of the concrete deck from the site.

Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak welcomed Gov. Tim Pawlenty's support for the light-rail component. City officials, Rybak said, "have compromised with the state, the state has compromised with us, and we have a vision that we believe will be for a bridge that will serve us for many years to come."

In a letter dated Tuesday, Pawlenty told the Minneapolis City Council that he had told MnDOT to design and construct a replacement bridge capable of carrying a light-rail line over the Mississippi River.

Construction on the new bridge can't begin until Minneapolis gives the go-ahead under the state's municipal consent process, though cleanup will continue. A public hearing on the consent process is set for Sept. 20.

Covering the additional cost

The money to make the bridge structurally ready for light rail would not come out of the $250 million in emergency federal funds, which can't be used for such upgrades. Legislators have signaled a willingness to cover the additional cost.

If a special legislative session is called to deal with the bridge and other issues, Pawlenty said he would want legislative leaders to agree ahead of time to an agenda and what the bills would contain. "I don't want a free-for-all or a food fight," he said, noting that he planned to talk with legislative leaders today.

A special session might address other issues as well, such as a broader transportation measure, flood-relief efforts and perhaps property tax relief.

Pawlenty said he was still open to the idea of increasing the gas tax, possibly a temporary increase, or one offset by adjustments to the income tax.

State Sen. Jim Carlson, a DFLer from Eagan who is a member of the Legislature's Joint Committee on the Bridge Collapse, said Tuesday that prospects for a special session seemed good and that legislative leaders had been exchanging letters with the governor to discuss the terms.

Carlson expected an increase in the gas tax, which funds highway projects, to pass. "If we go into session, it's assured," he said

The governor said a request for proposals from construction teams to rebuild the bridge probably would be issued soon.

On his visit Tuesday, Bush also signaled some support for accommodating rail on the replacement bridge.

Under Bush's emergency declaration, money can be used to reimburse state and local agencies for expenses incurred through Aug. 15. Pawlenty expressed optimism that the time frame could be extended by several days to cover all recovery operations, which ended Monday.

With all vehicles except a cement truck taken from the site, removal of the old bridge can now move faster. Mark Rosenker, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said Tuesday in Minneapolis that crews may remove all concrete deck, as well as some of the southern end of the bridge.

A closer look for the media

A media tour of the site Tuesday revealed the northern section clogged with broken bridge decking, while the southern section of the river had been cleared of debris down several feet, said Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek, who served as a guide.

"It looks a lot different in some respects," Stanek said of the scene, comparing it to the immediate aftermath of the Aug. 1 tragedy. "In other respects, it looks the same way, showing the chaos and the horror."

Rosenker said that on Monday, the NTSB had received documents relating to the bridge's original design and that those would be "extremely helpful" to investigators who are running computer models of the collapse to try to determine its cause.

He said two gusset plates were being taken to Washington for further analysis but cautioned against jumping to any conclusions about the cause of the collapse. "There's more to it than the gusset plates -- let me just make sure you understand that," he said.

An NTSB team will be in town at least through the first week in November, he said.

The city still has no plan for reopening the 10th Avenue Bridge, but on Tuesday many people came to see the destruction from the Dinkytown Bicycle Connection, a bicycle and pedestrian bridge downstream that was reopened at noon only on the West Bank end of the U campus. Construction is keeping the East Bank end closed.

Bicyclists Jim and Susan LeClair of northeast Minneapolis stopped by for a moment of silence and to pay their respects to the victims.

"I just hope they didn't suffer," Jim LeClair said.

Staff writers Tim Harlow and Norman Draper contributed to this report. Jim Foti • 612-673-4491

Jim Foti • jfoti@startribune.com

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