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Money won't hold up bridge inspections

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ROSEVILLE, Minn. - Cost will not be a consideration as Minnesota officials vow to inspect every bridge in the state.

"We will do anything and everything to get these issues addressed," Gov. Tim Pawlenty said Friday.

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Added one of his top transportation officials, Bob McFarlin: "We will fund it, whatever the cost, because of safety."

McFarlin said he has no idea when all 13,026 bridges will be inspected. However, he pledged to let the public know daily about progress being made. On Thursday, Pawlenty ordered all bridges inspected.

Three Minnesota bridges somewhat similar to one that collapsed Wednesday night in Minneapolis were being inspected Friday and inspection is to begin on a fourth today. Those bridges are in St. Cloud, Sauk Rapids and Sandstone and between Minnesota and Osceola, Wis.

Once the four similar to the collapsed Interstate 35W bridge are inspected, attention will turn to 106 state bridges and more than 1,000 owned by local governments that have shown structural problems in recent inspections.

Bridges that have shown no deficiencies will be checked last.

Federal and state transportation officials say there are no lists that rank the danger of bridges.

A list of state bridges that McFarlin's department released Thursday afternoon, that showed the collapsed structure as 43rd worst, just is a method to help decide where to conduct repairs and helps federal authorities decide what bridge repair work to fund, he said.

Deficiency ratings have nothing to do directly with the safety of a bridge, McFarlin said.

Three percent of Minnesota bridges are on the deficiency list, while the number nationally is 13 percent.

"If we have a bridge that needs to be replaced for safety reasons, that is where the money would go," said Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau, who also is Pawlenty's transportation commissioner.

Molnau became agitated during a nearly hour-long news conference Friday afternoon when reporters asked whether she would resign if her department was found at fault and whether transportation officials made mistakes in deciding where to spend money.

"We would never, ever" hold back money when safety is concerned, Molnau said.

She raised her voice, indicating the issue was personal because her daughter drove across the 35W Mississippi River bridge twice a day.

Molnau and her staff said budget problems have not affected bridge inspections or repairs.

"Safety is the No. 1 priority..." she said. "We will never compromise safety."

"It was certainly not a money issue," state bridge engineer Dan Dorgan said of the 35W bridge collapse.

"There have been no cuts to the bridge inspection budget and no cuts to bridge inspections," McFarlin said.

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