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Published August 18 2007

Light rail could replace 35W bridge

MINNEAPOLIS – Minnesota’s governor opened the door Friday for a possible compromise on a light-rail line on a new Interstate 35W bridge, a city goal that the state had warned would drive up the cost and might slow the project.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty signaled the potentially important compromise on his weekly radio show, where he said the new bridge could be built to accomodate a light-rail train in the future – a feature some in his administration had cast doubt on only a few days earlier.

Pawlenty cautioned that adding light rail would make the bridge replacement cost more, and that the federal government was unlikely to pick up that part of the tab. He indicated the cost of light rail would be weighed against other bridge enhancements sought by the city.

“It is something we may be able to address, but we can’t address it in isolation,” Pawlenty said.

The Minneapolis City Council on Friday unanimously approved a set of goals for the new bridge. Besides light rail capability, the city wants the bridge to carry more vehicles than the old bridge and be flexible for future transportation needs, such as a dedicated bus lane.

The council also said it wanted a memorial created to honor those killed in the bridge collapse, but didn’t specify it should be on the bridge itself.

The city council wouldn’t be able to completely block a bridge not to its liking, but could significantly slow down the rebuilding process by withholding an official vote of consent.

That could keep the state from its goal of finishing the rebuilding by the end of 2008.

The rebuilding itself won’t begin until the recovery of bodies is complete, but that appeared to be drawing closer. By Thursday, authorities had identified the two most recent set of remains, bringing the official death toll to 11 and leaving only two people still known to be missing.

Debris was being removed from the site Friday to allow Navy divers to get to new areas in the rubble. The two people remaining on the list of missing are Scott Sathers, 29, of Maple Grove, and Greg Jolstad, 45, of Mora.

Dive team spokesman Randy Mitchell said he anticipated that divers would get access to the dozen or so vehicles still in the Mississippi River before thunderstorms hit the state on Saturday. Earlier storms this week have halted the dive at times because the river runs faster.

The tight reconstruction timeline has created concern among some officials that MnDOT would forsake high building standards in favor of speed. The agency was stung Friday by a report that it had failed to meet its own goal of having about two-thirds of state bridges in good condition.

The Star Tribune reported Friday that in 1997, the department adopted a 20-year goal of ensuring that 65 percent of bridges were listed in good condition. By 2003, they dropped it to 55 percent. Over the same time span, the percentage of bridges that hit the mark fell from 62 percent to 51.8 percent.

The newspaper report suggested that the retreat came as MnDOT was facing mounting fiscal challenges.