- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 5, 2007

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — President Bush pledged yesterday to cut red tape that could delay rebuilding a bridge that now lies crumbled in muddy water.

Mr. Bush toured the site of the collapse, which sent dozens of cars sliding into the Mississippi River from the Minneapolis span on Wednesday. At least five persons died and about 100 others were injured. Eight or more victims are thought to be trapped in the wreckage.

“Our message to the Twin Cities is, we want to get this bridge rebuilt as quick as possible, that we understand this is a main artery of life here, that people count on this bridge and this highway system to get to work,” he said as he stood next to the buckled spans, still littered with abandoned vehicles.

Divers searching the river for victims paused periodically yesterday so crews could remove debris that stood in the way.

A memorial service with songs and prayers for the victims was set for 7 tonight. Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Republican, and Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, a member of the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, encouraged Minnesotans to attend and honor the families and first responders. The Minnesota Orchestra and other musicians were scheduled to perform, and any money raised will be distributed to victims’ families.

Mr. Bush offered no timetable for rebuilding the bridge, a project he put in the hands of Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peters.

“I do promise she’s going to listen to the local authorities to find out what the folks here need,” he said. “I do promise that when she sees roadblocks and hurdles in the way of getting the job done, she’ll do everything she can to eliminate them.”

Mr. Bush flew to Minneapolis aboard Air Force One, then boarded the Marine One presidential helicopter for an aerial tour of the broken bridge, which had been rated structurally deficient by the government as long ago as 1990.

Back on the ground, the scene was eerily quiet as Mr. Bush descended a steep slope to the riverbank. Red and blue lights flashed from rescue boats as the president surveyed the damage: a slab of concrete that resembled an alpine ski jump; metal shaped like an accordion; straight reinforcement rods that now look like curved prongs of a pitchfork.

Mr. Bush praised rescuers and investigators who are working “to find life, to go under these murky waters to find the facts, and it’s going to take awhile.”

Meanwhile, the state’s legislative leaders began putting lawmakers on standby for a post-Labor Day special session. Mr. Pawlenty, in a huge political concession, announced he is willing to reverse his long-standing opposition to a state gas tax increase.

Mr. Pawlenty said that he hopes lawmakers will agree to his ideas for funding road and bridge repairs but that details had not been worked out. The state’s gas tax has stood at 20 cents per gallon since 1988.

State transportation officials said yesterday that they have hired the New York-based Parsons Brinckerhoff engineering firm as the consultant to review the state’s bridge inspection protocols. Parsons also will assist in speedier inspections of Minnesota bridges.

The state also said it would begin seeking contractors interested in joining the effort to rebuild the bridge.