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After the bridge disaster

Many top Minnesota transportation officials are focused on the collapsed Minneapolis bridge, but they say that is not slowing down other projects.

And routine bridge inspections continue even as a new round of checks nears.

Bob McFarlin, assistant to the transportation commissioner, said Monday that the collapse has not affected construction projects around the state. He said money remains flowing to those projects, and is not being diverted to operations revolving around the disaster that occurred last Wednesday near downtown Minneapolis.

He said that many in the Minnesota Department of Transportation are working on the collapse, but added that that the disaster "probably will not" affect the department's other jobs in the future.

However, McFarlin added, any impact on other projects will depend upon how much federal money comes to Minnesota for the bridge, and how fast it comes. Congress last week approved $250 million for a new bridge and President Bush promised $5 million to clean up bridge debris now sitting in the Mississippi River. MnDOT officials say they don't know how much a new bridge will cost.

Moving ahead with removing bridge debris and building a new one without affecting other projects "is our goal," McFarlin said.

In the aftermath of the bridge collapse, Gov. Tim Pawlenty ordered all 13,026 local and state bridges inspected. Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau, his transportation commissioner, said while plans are being made for those extra inspections, normal inspections are going ahead as planned long before the bridge collapsed.

"We're going to keep up our regiment of inspections so the bridges do not fall behind," Molnau said.

In addition to the normal inspections, the state has hired a private firm to help meet Pawlenty's order to inspect every bridge as soon as possible.

McFarlin said he hopes to have a timeline for the extra inspections in the next few days.

Also Monday, Molnau continued to defend her department's work as reporters asked her if she plans to resign in light of the bridge collapse.

"I'm doing my job," she said. "The governor shows complete confidence in the job we are doing."

She said she does not expect to offer her resignation.

Molnau is Minnesota's first lieutenant governor who also serves as a commissioner.

Murphy, a Red Wing Democrat who heads the Senate Transportation Committee, and Pawlenty made it clear that a special legislative session to deal with transportation funding is becoming much more likely after Labor Day.

Pawlenty says that no significant transportation funding increases have come in a couple of decades other than some loans the state has taken out under his tenure.

After the bridge collapse, Pawlenty gave up his long-held opposition to raising the gasoline tax, which has been 20 cents since 1988. However, Democratic legislative leaders and Republican Pawlenty still need to negotiate a deal before he calls lawmakers into special session.

"Looking at the total degradation of our roadways ... we need a massive infusion of dollars up front," Murphy said.

Transportation experts say $1.7 billion a year is needed to bring Minnesota roads and bridges up to appropriate standards.

Murphy told reporters Monday that getting the entire amount "would be a very difficult or impossible task."

Most deaths occur in rural Minnesota, so Murphy said he expects lawmakers there to back more funding.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.