Rains Delay Minneapolis Search, New Bridge Design Selected

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) - As politicians wrangled over the future of the collapsed Mississippi River bridge, more heavy rain pelted the area, threatening to delay recovery work.

New storms moved in overnight after weekend thunderstorms slowed divers still seeking the bodies of four missing motorists presumed killed in the collapse. The river was moving faster than usual, kicking up debris and reducing visibility.

Divers have recovered nine bodies since the Interstate 35W span collapsed on August 1.

On Tuesday, Department of Transportation officials were to release preliminary designs for the new bridge. The agency has said it wants to build five lanes in each direction by the end of next year. The old bridge had four each way.

Minneapolis' mayor and a key state lawmaker cautioned Monday that the swift timetable to replace the span could overlook safety and the unique elements necessary to make it a memorial.

"I believe a large number of people want this bridge to symbolize the rebuilding of a community in some way," Mayor R.T. Rybak told The Associated Press. "That does not seem to be a significant part of MNDOT's goal at this point."

Recovery work and debris removal continued at the failed bridge Monday. When divers were pulled out of the water occasionally, the time was used to remove cars.

Meanwhile, Sen. Steve Murphy, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said he worried transportation officials were "rushing headlong" into rebuilding the bridge. He said making the timetable the top priority could mean shortcuts that compromise the bridge's safety and keep traffic nearby from flowing smoothly.

"They could throw up that bridge and only spend $250 million, but 10 years from now we might be back investing another $250 million in it so it functions the way we want," said Murphy, of Red Wing. "Let's not build it fast and not to last. Let's build it to last, period."

Lucy Kender, a spokeswoman for the DOT, said speed does not have to equal lower quality in the bridge replacement.

"This bridge, on a major interstate in a major metropolitan area, is a key link to the whole interstate program throughout the entire nation," Kender said. "Our economy, our society here, needs that bridge back up."

The mayor said pushing the new bridge's timetable too hard could mean missing the chance to more smoothly route traffic from the bridge and freeway into nearby downtown Minneapolis.

Rybak and Murphy both disagree with Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau, who also serves as the DOT commissioner, over whether the new bridge should be equipped with tracks for a light rail train.

A single north-south light rail line currently runs from downtown to the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. The state is planning to expand the system by adding an east-west line to connect the downtowns of the Twin Cities, and some have suggested laying it across the new bridge would be cost-efficient.

Molnau, a longstanding opponent of light rail, wrote a letter to Gov. Tim Pawlenty over the weekend recommending that light rail not be included on the new bridge. He said it would take too long to study it's feasibility.

"It's possible we could save millions of dollars by putting it on or next to this bridge" rather than grafting it onto an existing bridge, Rybak said. "Now is the time to ask that question."

Pawlenty's spokesman, Brian McClung, said the governor wants to focus first on getting the span replaced with federal emergency dollars, in "as expeditious a manner as possible." Once that is in motion, McClung said, the state can consider related improvements.