WASHINGTON – The Bush administration said Thursday that structural deficiencies were found two years ago in the highway bridge that collapsed in Minneapolis, and it was the state's responsibility to fix them. Congress began working on a $250 million package of federal assistance.
President Bush, who will travel to the scene of the disaster on Saturday, said the federal government would help rebuild the bridge in the city that will host next year's Republican National Convention.
"We in the federal government must respond, and respond robustly, to help the people there not only recover, but to make sure that lifeline of activity — that bridge — gets rebuilt as quickly as possible," Bush said after a Cabinet meeting.
Still stung by harsh criticism of the government's sluggish response to Hurricane Katrina, Bush talked with state and local officials in Minnesota, and the administration dispatched officials to the scene.
The White House said an inspection two years ago found structural deficiencies in the 40-year-old highway bridge that buckled during evening rush hour Wednesday.
The Interstate 35W span rated 50 on a scale of 100 for structural stability and was classified as "structurally deficient," which means that there were features of the bridge that needed to be repaired or replaced.
"It doesn't mean that the bridge is unsafe," Transportation Secretary Mary Peters told The Associated Press after touring the site. "It could carry a rating of 50 for a number of years without getting substantially worse."
According to the Federal Highway Administration, there are 75,422 bridges nationwide that carry a "structurally deficient" classification. That's out of about 600,000 bridges.
Peters said the bridge had been on a schedule for inspection every two years. She said she did not know what the specific problems were that the last inspection uncovered.
Earlier, at the White House, press secretary Tony Snow said while the inspection didn't indicate the bridge was at risk of failing, "if an inspection report identifies deficiencies, the state is responsible for taking corrective actions."
The House Transportation Committee quickly approved legislation that would direct $250 million to Minnesota to help it replace the bridge. The bill, ushered through by committee chairman Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., would waive the $100 million federal limit per state for emergency relief funds. Oberstar said he hoped the House would pass the bill later in the day.
First lady Laura Bush will visit Minneapolis on Friday to console victims of the disaster. She will view the site from an overlook area and stop at an emergency operation command center to visit with volunteers and first responders. Afterward, she will stop by the Republican National Committee summer meeting being held in the city and make a speech at a youth conference at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul.
While in Minneapolis with Federal Highway Administrator J. Richard Capka, Peters announced a $5 million grant to help pay for rerouting traffic around the disaster, clearing debris and making repairs. Peters said any requests for more money would be considered quickly.
Bush made morning phone calls to Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak to offer his support and acknowledge the economic cost of losing a main transportation artery.
"I told them we would help with rescue efforts," Bush said. "But I also told them how much we are in prayer for those who suffered. And I thank our fellow, my fellow citizens for holding up those who are suffering."
The administration also has sent federal help from the National Transportation Safety Board, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the FBI, Coast Guard, Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency, Snow said.
"There will be lots of, you know, `Who's responsible? Who could have done what?"' Snow said. "The fact is, if anybody has knowledge that something like this can happen, they're going to act on it. ... This is a horrible time for the families of those who lost loved ones yesterday, and it's also a very trying time for anybody in public service."
The Transportation Department's inspector general last year criticized the oversight of interstate bridges. The March 2006 report said investigators found incorrect or outdated maximum weight limit calculations and weight limit postings in the National Bridge Inventory and in states' bridge databases. The Federal Highway Administration agreed that improvements were needed.
Incorrect load ratings could endanger bridges by allowing heavier vehicles to cross than should, and could affect whether a bridge is properly identified as structurally deficient in the first place, the inspector general said.
The audit didn't identify any Minnesota bridges or mention the state beyond noting that 3 percent of its bridges were structurally deficient, placing it at the low end among states with bridge problems.