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.
But President Bush pledged federal help in rebuilding the bridge in the city that will host next year’s Republican National Convention. That assistance could include $250 million to address the immediate economic impact to , NBC News reported.
The president will visit Minneapolis on Saturday, the White House announced late Thursday.
“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 in the Rose Garden after a Cabinet meeting.
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, killing at least four people and sending dozens of cars plummeting into the Mississippi River.
Transportation officials said the Interstate 35W span rated 50 on a scale of 100 for structural stability and was classified as “structurally deficient.”
“Structurally deficient means some portions of the bridge need to be scheduled for repair or replacement. It doesn’t mean that the bridge is unsafe,” Transportation Secretary Mary Peters said in an interview after touring the collapsed bridge site.
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.
'We are in prayer'
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.”
First lady Laura Bush will visit Minneapolis on Friday to console victims of the disaster. Her schedule has not been completed. Earlier, Mrs. Bush had been scheduled to visit an American Indian magnet school and make a speech at a youth conference in nearby St. Paul, Minn., and deliver remarks at the Republican National Committee summer meeting in Minneapolis. The Republican National Convention will be held in Minneapolis-St. Paul in September 2008.
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 that the secretary (of transportation) would be there,” Bush said. “I told them we would help with rescue efforts. 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.”
'This is a horrible time'
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.”
He said it could take maybe a year to figure out the precise cause. “I’m sure that state and local officials all around the country will try to assess whether they need to revisit their own inspection procedures,” Snow said.
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 and said the problems could pose safety hazards. The Federal Highway Administration agreed that improvements were needed.
Criticism in crisis
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. However, it said such bridges were crossed by an average of 30,000 to 40,000 vehicles a day in Minnesota, ranking it 13th in daily traffic over deficient bridges.
Bush first learned of the bridge collapse while having dinner Wednesday night with the first lady. Snow said Bush received preliminary details about the bridge collapse from Joe Hagin, deputy chief of staff. Hagin called Fran Townsend, Bush’s homeland security adviser, who reported that there were no known links to terrorists.
The president, whose administration came under heavy criticism for its handling of Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath, has offered comfort to disaster victims several times in recent months.
In March, Bush visited survivors of tornadoes that ripped through Alabama and Georgia. In April, he offered words of hope at Virginia Tech after a gunman killed 32 people and committed suicide. In May, Bush went to Kansas after a tornado wiped out the tiny town of Greensburg.