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Legislators calling for area bridges to be inspected quickly

Area lawmakers have begun calling for increased attention and funding to the state's transportation infrastructure after the fatal failure last Wednesday of an Interstate 35W bridge spanning the Mississippi in Minneapolis.

In an area surrounded by two major rivers, the Mississippi and St. Croix, south Washington County commuters cross a number of bridges -- some in better shape than others.

The county has six bridges rated "deficient" by the Minnesota Department of Transportation, including the famous Stillwater Lift Bridge. In addition, Mn/DOT's Bridge Management Unit classified as deficient the U.S. Highway 61 bridge that shuttles 32,500 cars per day over the Mississippi River between Cottage Grove and Hastings.

"(Area bridges) have needs on them, and we need to make sure those are inspected now," said Rep. Karla Bigham, DFL-Cottage Grove.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty last week asked Mn/DOT to bring in an outside firm to the state to inspect other bridges similar in age and design to the collapsed I-35W bridge. State Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, said he believes the Highway 61 bridge constructed in 1950 should be near the top of the state's to-do list.

"I'm writing a letter to the governor that says we need those private inspectors inspecting our Hastings bridge," he said last week. "I'm recommending it get inspected as soon as possible...It's imperative."

Bigham said the state is heading in the right direction by ordering the inspections of many of the state's aging bridges, but she believes lawmakers could do more.

In May, Pawlenty vetoed a transportation bill that would have helped cover the $1 billion shortfall the state said it faces in highway funding, saying the five cent per gallon gas tax increase was "untimely and misguided." The vetoing of the bill -- and the failure of the legislature to override it -- wasn't what caused Wednesday's catastrophic bridge failure, Bigham stressed, but the funding would have gone a long way toward shoring up Minnesota's transportation infrastructure, she said.

"Obviously, the transportation bill that was presented would have been a great movement forward in investing in our state's infrastructure," she said.

McNamara, who said he voted against the transportation bill in May because of concern over the referendum-less sales tax increase it included, said he is sure the Legislature will work together so that area residents can be sure the roads and bridges they drive on are as safe as possible.

"I think we're going to get that (funding)," he said. "Unfortunately this tragedy may bring this to the forefront. We need to have a transportation discussion. It's just unfortunate that this tragedy brings it forward in the way it is."

Jon Avise can be reached at