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Officials Warn of Possible Flaw in Nation's Bridges

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Officials Warn of Possible Flaw in Nation's Bridges

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Officials Warn of Possible Flaw in Nation's Bridges

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

In Minneapolis today, rescue workers retrieved two more bodies from the wreckage of the I35-W bridge. Meanwhile, federal transportation officials warn states to look out for two problems that may have contributed to the bridge collapse. The first is the placement of construction equipment and materials on a span. The second has to do with the possible design flaw in the 35-W bridge.

Here's NPR's Jason Beaubien.

JASON BEAUBIEN: The National Transportation Safety Board's investigation into the 35-W bridge failure won't be completed for months, and the NTSB chairman, Mark Rosenker, says his agency is looking at various theories of what caused the collapse. But on Wednesday, the NTSB said in a press release, they found a design issue with gusset plates on the 35-W. Gussets are steel plates that tie the beams of a bridge together. This led Transportation Secretary Mary Peters to immediately caution local officials that stress on gussets may have been a factor in the collapse.

Kent Harries, a professor of structural engineering at the University of Pittsburgh, says it's unusual to see the NTSB suggest so early in an investigation that one element is a major concern to them.

KENT HARRIES: I think you have to interpret it that there's something that they have seen or that they're concerned with that they obviously want to nip in the bud. What it is, I think, is simply a matter of speculation at this stage.

BEAUBIEN: This afternoon, an NTSB official in Minneapolis said the gusset issue is being overblown. Transportation Secretary Peters and her warning to local bridge officials also said they should be cautious about the stress construction vehicles and stockpiled raw materials are putting on the nation's bridges. A construction crew was working on the deck of the 35-W when it buckled. Harries, at the University of Pittsburgh, says this federal warning is also a bit odd. 35-W didn't have any weight limits on it. He notes that bridges are designed to be able to support heavy trucks, even trucks carrying construction equipment and supplies.

HARRIES: A stack of gravel or a pile of gravel has to come off a dump truck, so the load is already there on the dump truck and it's simply being transferred, and one would expect it to not overload any particular element of the structure.

BEAUBIEN: In Congress, there've been calls for a hike in the federal gas tax to fund repairs to the nation's aging highway infrastructure. The federal gas tax hasn't gone up since 1993. President Bush today, however, criticized the way the House Transportation Committee allocates highway funds.

GEORGE W: From my perspective, the way it seems to have worked is that each member on that committee gets to set his or her own priority first, and then with several leftovers spent to the funding formula. That's not the right way to prioritize the people's money. So before we raise taxes, which could affect economic growth, I would strongly urge the Congress to examine how they set priorities. And if bridges are a priority, just make sure we set that priority first and foremost before we raise taxes.

BEAUBIEN: The push to boost the gas tax, however, has been led by the new chairman at the House Transportation Committee, Jim Oberstar of Minnesota.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News.

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