Somber procession planned for new Minneapolis span

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- State troopers will lead a slow, somber procession of motorists across the Mississippi River early Thursday to mark the opening of the new bridge replacing one that collapsed and killed 13 people last year.

With the hum of construction equipment behind them, government officials gathered Monday to announce the opening and unveil the design of a permanent memorial to the dead and 145 injured.

"Getting this bridge built and getting it built quickly will help heal a wound, but it will never heal the pain from last August," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters. "These lanes will forever be sacred because of the 13 people who lost their lives here."

The new concrete span for Interstate 35W includes high-tech sensors and backup features lacking in the 40-year-old steel truss bridge it replaces. The $234 million bridge was fast-tracked to restore the major Minneapolis artery, a traffic route that accounted for 140,000 trips a day.

"Out of mind-numbing tragedy has come an engineering marvel," said Rep. Jim Oberstar, a Minnesota Democrat and head of the House Transportation Committee. "Out of the rubble of the failing of a bridge has come a lesson for the future of bridge engineering and construction."

The builders are in line for a bonus of up to $27 million for completing the project more than three months early. Minnesota Transportation Commissioner Tom Sorel said the contractor must complete some minor work before the award size is determined.

The new bridge was completed 11 months after work began and about 13 months after the collapse. In contrast, work on the original bridge began in 1964 and wasn't finished until 1967.

When the new span opens at 5 a.m. Thursday, the troopers will line up across the lanes at each end, allowing traffic to line up behind them. Once construction barricades are removed, the troopers will slowly drive across the bridge, allowing commuters to follow them.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty said the arrangement is meant more for safety than ceremony.

"We're not going to have a race or a rush for people to be the first to drive across the bridge," he said.

Andy Gannon, whose car plunged 42 feet when the old I-35W bridge fell into the river, said he wants to be among the first to cross. He recently found the crumpled directions from his trip that tragic day - a route that was to take him to a wake for a friend's father. He will follow those directions Thursday.

"For me, I have to complete where I was going," he said.

The memorial to the collapse will be in a nearby park. A fountain will be surrounded by 13 steel I-beams, each engraved with the name of one of the dead. Mayor R.T. Rybak said a $1 million fundraising campaign will finance the construction and upkeep of the memorial.

The National Transportation Safety Board plans to discuss its findings on what caused the bridge collapse at a public hearing in Washington in November.

In January, NTSB Chairman Mark Rosenker said a design error was "the critical factor" in the collapse, pointing to too-thin gusset plates that helped connect the bridge's steel beams.

The NTSB has also focused on the weight of construction materials that were on the bridge for a resurfacing project.

Gannon said he has full confidence in the new bridge's safety.

"There will be a lot of eyes on this bridge," he said. "For something to go wrong, I just don't see it."

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