Plans for New Minnesota Bridge Questioned

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ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - State transportation officials want to build a bridge by 2008 to replace the one that collapsed, and several contractors have said they think it can be done on time.

But lawmakers and others questioned the fast-track plans for the bridge on Wednesday, expressing doubts it will be a quick solution to the increased traffic that has clogged city streets since the August 1 collapse of the Interstate 35W span.

State Sen. Kathy Saltzman, a Democrat, said quality problems and delays have plagued another bridge project near her home. "If we can't build a bridge in three to five years, why do we think we can do it now in overdrive?" she said.

Others pushed to make the bridge more than a replacement for the fallen span, with a memorial to the victims and the capacity to carry future light-rail trains - even if the state has to pay extra.

"If it was up to us, we'd write a big ol' check and we'd send you out of here with $500 million," said state Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Steve Murphy, a Democrat.

The replacement plans call for a 10-lane bridge, two lanes wider than the original bridge. Transportation officials said the $250 million in federal emergency aid limits them to replacing the existing structure, and other add-ons could delay the project by months or years.

Bridge reconstruction project manager Jon Chiglo said five teams of contractors qualified to bid on the project didn't think the fast timeline would be a problem, and he was confident the plan would work.

Meanwhile, Navy divers and recovery workers continued to remove debris from the Mississippi River, where the bodies of four missing people believed killed in the collapse were thought to be. Remains of nine other victims have been recovered.

The public got its best view in weeks of the bridge collapse when the city briefly opened a nearby pedestrian bridge on Wednesday, but the span was closed after recovery workers called the move disrespectful to families of those still missing. The bridge will remain closed until the remaining bodies have been recovered.

A federal judge denied a law firm's request for access to the collapse site to gather information for possible death and personal injury lawsuits. District Judge Patrick J. Schiltz said the government has "an urgent interest" in recovering victims and clearing the wreckage as soon as possible, and its task would be complicated if access was given.

Across the city, a few survivors of the crash were honored for their heroism. First Student, the company that owned the school bus that became an iconic image of the tragedy, held a ceremony in which it presented $5,000 checks to four adults credited with preventing the death or serious injury of about 60 kids on the bus.

Bus driver Kim Dahl, who a company official said had the presence of mind to jam on the parking brake and possibly prevent the bus from sliding off the bridge into the river, made her first public comments since the collapse.

"I don't feel like a hero," Dahl said. "I think anybody in the situation would do the same thing."

Jeremy Hernandez, who also was honored for helping the kids get off the bus, said he had decided to accept an offer of free tuition from Dunwoody College of Technology, which he previously hadn't been able to afford. Hernandez plans to become an auto mechanic.