Discussions began in Washington, D.C., and in St. Paul, Minnesota, to deal with funding for bridges, roads and flood relief in southeastern Minnesota.
In Washington, D.C., Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., opened a congressional hearing into the nation's aging road infrastructure and laid the foundation for a national bridge initiative, possibly backed by a 5-cent fuel tax increase. His proposal would establish a $25-billion trust fund to replace 6,175 of the most deficient bridges in the National Highway System.
Oberstar blamed Minnesota Department of Transportation authorities for failing to use transportation dollars wisely and, at times, raiding the fund for other purposes. He and Bush administration officials clashed over his proposal for a national gas tax increase to upgrade bridges. Mary Peters rejected the idea of a gas tax increase and called for better use of existing funds supplemented by tolls and other sources.
Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak testified at the hearing saying he supported the temporary 5-cent gas tax increase and called the bridge failure "a failure of man."
After weeks of indecision, Gov. Tim Pawlenty and legislative leaders called a special session on Monday, September 10, for the next day to pass a flood relief package. The session provides a final emergency package of $150 million to $160 million Pawlenty released last week through executive order.
In Minneapolis, a law firm has hired bridge experts who were granted access to limited portions of the collapsed bridge to examine previously restricted portions of the north and south approaches. The law firm is representing families of several people killed on the bridge and some injured survivors.
The examined portions are not under control of the NTSB which relinquished parts of the site to MnDOT which gave permission to the law firm to inspect those areas. A second law firm is in the process of getting investigative access to the bridge as part of its pro bono work for survivors of the bridge collapse.
Technical proposals from teams of contractors who want to work on the new bridge were given to MnDOT on September 14 before 8 a.m.; price proposals are due by September 18.
Contractors gathered information about soil, river conditions, utilities at the site, analyze weather patterns, and look at river levels. In addition, they scheduled material suppliers, subcontractors and equipment; determined the tasks and workers needed; and factored in safety precautions.
MnDOT will score proposals on quality and aesthetics, planned enhancements on and around the bridge, and commitment to public relations. Officials will open price proposals on September 19, include them with technical proposals and determine the winning bid.
NTSB said investigators will be at the site until at least November to recover critical bridge components. Much work remains to determine the collapse, including a thorough look at gusset plates that held the steel beams together. Some plates are still submerged that are important to the investigation. The NTSB said it calculated that 190 people and 110 vehicles were involved in the accident.
Meanwhile, Minnesota's governor and legislative leaders have been drifting apart on bridge and transportation funding when they spent weeks deciding on a special session. Tuesday's discussions included obtaining appropriations from various state agencies to repair state and local highways and bridges among other emergency relief topics. Pawlenty said a comprehensive transportation package can wait until 2008 because flood relief is more urgent.
By previous agreement, the legislators and the governor authorized the flood relief package of $218 million which include spending more than $53 million in federal funds for the I-35W bridge recovery and cleanup but no additional funding to repair many other structurally deficient bridges in Minnesota.
If the package passes the legislature, the flood relief portion would begin the arduous task of reconstructing washed-out roads and bridges, repairing storm sewers, restoring wastewater and drinking water systems, and helping businesses recover and begin operating.