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m3732 BC-MN-BridgeReplacement 4thLd-Writethru 10-01 0737

Cost of bridge failure could reach $400 million

Eds: UPDATES with committee adjourning without making decision.

With BC-MN--Bridge Replacement-Glance

AP Photos MNJM101-103

By BRIAN BAKST

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Associated Press Writer

ST. PAUL (AP) — The Interstate 35W bridge catastrophe carried a far bigger financial toll than previously known and could approach $400 million by the time a replacement is built.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation on Monday presented a new estimate of costs stemming from the Aug. 1 collapse, which killed 13 people and cut off a major Minneapolis artery. The emergency response, site cleanup, stepped-up inspections of other spans, traffic diversions and new bridge could cost state and local governments $393 million if incentives in the reconstruction contract are earned in full.

"There’s a lot of expense outside the rebuilding of the bridge," said Transportation Commissioner Carol Molnau, who is also the state’s lieutenant governor.

Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller and other veteran lawmakers seemed taken aback by the tally and suggested the state pursue additional federal dollars to cover unforeseen costs.

"Shouldn’t we be trying to ask them to pay for the whole thing?" he asked Molnau.

The estimate came to light as Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s administration urged top lawmakers to free up state dollars toward the replacement Mississippi River crossing. The administration is worried that winter will arrive before federal bridge money does, and needs special authorization to avoid a cash crunch.

Finance Commissioner Tom Hanson made the request to a eight-member panel of senior legislators — known as the Transportation Contingent Appropriation Group — exactly two months after the collapse. The committee adjourned without making a decision and planned to reconvene later in the week.

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Without the panel’s approval, the state Department of Transportation could delay other road projects in order to maintain its aggressive schedule of getting the new bridge built by the end of 2008. They have refused to detail which projects are in jeopardy.

Specifically, the Pawlenty administration needs authorization to spend $195 million on the bridge with the expectation that it will be reimbursed by the federal government.

In early August, Congress and President Bush acted with uncharacteristic speed and approved $250 million to build a new bridge. But Congress has yet to take the second in a two-step process for sending out money, and Hanson said the distribution might not take place for several more months.

"We have no reason to doubt that the money will be there at some point," Hanson said.

State transportation leaders hope to begin work on the new bridge in a couple of weeks. They need state money to cover immediate costs until the federal reimbursement goes through. Agency officials said they undoubtedly will make another bridge-related funding request during the Legislature’s 2008 session, which begins in February.

Democratic legislators have questioned the emergency spending request. Sen. Steve Murphy, the Senate transportation chairman, said the large request should be put to the full Legislature, possibly in a special session.

"This is just a willy-nilly way of getting out of a sticky wicket," he told Hanson.

Soon after the bridge collapse, Pawlenty opened the door to a gas tax increase of up to a nickel to boost spending for roads and bridges. But lawmakers balked when Pawlenty suggested the tax be temporary or offset by tax cuts elsewhere.

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A debate on a major transportation package is likely to spill into 2008. Murphy said adding 5 cents to Minnesota’s 20 cent per gallon tax would barely make a dent in the state’s road needs.

For now, all sides are in a political pickle.

Pawlenty and his advisers have said they consider the bridge a priority and would put off previously scheduled projects if lawmakers don’t grant their wish — a point Molnau reiterated Monday.

House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, who presided over the hearing, was mindful of the stakes.

"We do want to make sure we are proceeding in a timely way on the reconstruction of the I35W bridge project," she said. "We also want to make sure other projects around the state are not delayed."

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