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Bridge probe deadline near

ST. PAUL - A law firm Minnesota legislators hired to conduct what was dubbed a Watergate-like investigation into the state Department of Transportation is hustling to meet a deadline next month.

Attorneys from Minneapolis-based Gray Plant Mooty told lawmakers Wednesday a May deadline could limit the scope of their probe into MnDOT's management of the Interstate 35W bridge for years before it collapsed, but they still will suggest ways to improve statewide bridge oversight.

"It's daunting," attorney Robert Stein said of the investigation, adding later: "The time is, quite honestly, a limiting factor."

Investigators are reviewing 16,000 documents from MnDOT, a consulting firm the agency hired and the state legislative auditor, whose office recently concluded its own probe into MnDOT's road and bridge funding.

Attorneys have interviewed people within MnDOT and outside the agency, including former governors and transportation commissioners.

The firm is not examining what caused the bridge collapse Aug. 1, 2007. That investigation is being conducted by the National Transportation Safety Board, which said it is focusing on design flaws in the gusset plates that held together critical bridge components.

Stein said his firm is looking at MnDOT's policies and decisions before recommending to the Legislature ways to "reduce, if not eliminate, the possibility that a tragedy like this could ever happen again."

Stein would not discuss details of Gray Plant Mooty's investigation. However, he said the firm is trying to answer several key questions, including:

-- Were bridge load ratings conducted and did MnDOT follow consultants' safety recommendations?

-- How was I-35W safety data shared among MnDOT staff?

-- What type of bridge safety information was given previous Minnesota governors and legislators?

-- How should the Legislature handle future big-budget bridge repair or replacement projects?

Democratic lawmakers led the effort to hire the law firm in December, arguing an independent investigation is needed because the Pawlenty administration, and MnDOT in particular, appeared to be working closely with federal investigators, as well as conducting their own investigation. The Legislature is paying $500,000 for the probe.

Sen. Michelle Fischbach, a member of the House-Senate committee exploring the bridge collapse, said she expects lawmakers will consider the firm's findings over a series of months or years.

"I'm assuming it's going to be some long-term things," said Fischbach, R-Paynesville.

Fischbach said she is taking the firm at its word that it can offer a complete report despite the tight time line. "Let's hope so."

Senate Transportation Chairman Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, said he does not want to just hear about what the state and its transportation officials need to do better. Minnesota already has a good bridge program, he said.

"There are some things that we do right," Murphy said, "and we need to make sure people understand that as well."

Rep. Bernie Lieder, who is leading the legislative bridge panel with Murphy, said he wants to know more about staffing levels in MnDOT's bridge department and how decisions are made within the agency.

"It's definitely going to be helpful," Lieder, DFL-Crookston, said of the firm's findings.

Sen. Kathy Saltzman, DFL-Woodbury, said the investigation is not intended to place blame, but should help the state moving forward.

"What can we learn that perhaps enables us to take better care and ensure the safety of our other infrastructure?" she said.