The White House, President George W. Bush Click to print this document

For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
August 4, 2007

Press Gaggle by Scott Stanzel and Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters
Aboard Air Force One
En Route Minneapolis, Minnesota

8:36 A.M. EDT

MR. STANZEL: Good morning, everyone. We are on our way to Minneapolis, Minnesota, obviously to view the damage and the collapse of the 35W bridge. I have a statement by the President about the debate on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. I'll read that statement, then we're lucky to be joined today by Secretary Mary Peters, Secretary of Transportation, and she can give you a sense of what's going on on the ground there in Minnesota.

Statement by the President: "Last night the United States Senate passed legislation to give our intelligence professionals the legal tools and authority they need to keep America safe. I appreciate the hard work they did to find common ground to pass this critical bill. Today the House of Representatives has an opportunity to consider that bill, pass it, and send it to me for my signature. Protecting America is our most solemn obligation, and I urge the House to pass this bill without delay."

We will provide this to you. We'll hand out some paper copies for you. I think we'll make arrangements for you all to make calls back to your desks. But this will be released when you have the opportunity to do that.

With that, I'd like to turn it over to Secretary Peters to give a sense of -- oh, in terms of the President's day, let me do that real quickly first. Obviously, you all will be along to see this, and we'll have to be a bit flexible, but the President --after we arrive in Minneapolis we'll be boarding helicopters, and we'll have an aerial tour of the damage. Then we'll land, go to the bridge site, and have a walking tour of the damage area. The President will receive a briefing from officials on the ground, meet with some of the rescuers and the heroes that were there, and he will also meet with families of victims.

That is a rough outline of the President's day, and we'll be there to assist you along the way. So with that, Secretary Peters.

SECRETARY PETERS: Thanks, Scott. Good morning. I just thought I'd give you a brief review of what we know today about this collapse, and then where we're going to be going with it. You all are aware that Wednesday evening at approximately 6:00 p.m. Central the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis collapsed. The bridge at the time was undergoing what we would term relatively minor maintenance work -- some resurfacing, working on the guardrail, working on the lighting. It was carrying a full load of vehicles when the bridge went down, and very, very tragically some people lost their lives; a number of people were injured, and still a few others are still missing at this time.

First and foremost, our sympathies and our thoughts have to go out to the people there and the families of these loved ones. We're working very closely with the National Transportation Safety Board, who were immediately on scene, to try to determine the cause of this collapse. And I certainly don't want to speculate before they get in there and complete their work what the cause was.

But clearly this was not something that we expected to happen, given the history of this bridge, the inspection process, and how this bridge was rated. But something happened, and it is clearly very, very important that we get not only to the bottom of what happened there, but also really look at the processes and the procedures by which we inspect and rate bridges, to make sure that we are doing everything we can to ensure America's infrastructure is safe.

To that point, in addition to what the National Transportation Safety Board is doing, I have asked DOT's inspector general to undertake an investigation of the bridge inspection program, to make sure that it's as robust as it needs to be; the application of that program, how those inspections are being conducted; and how moneys that are allocated for bridge repair and replacement are being used. And then last, I've asked him to look at are we spending money in the highest-priority areas -- are we doing what we need to do to ensure that these bridges are in good condition.

Further, I have sent out a directive from my office to all states, telling them that they need to inspect all similar bridges -- these are called steel arched truss bridges -- and I wanted those bridges -- there are a little over 750 of them nationwide -- immediately inspected. And so that directive has gone out, and that work is in process.

Q Was that a directive today?

SECRETARY PETERS: I'm sorry, no, ma'am. That directive came out Thursday evening.

And then concurrent with that, we are working with the state of Minnesota and the Minnesota DOT to give every assistance that we can to them both in recovering from this tragedy, but also be in position to get this important transportation link reestablished as soon as possible.

To that end, I took an authorization for $5 million with me when I went to the site early Thursday morning, to allow them to begin the debris cleanup, the other work that will have to happen immediately, and then, again, we'll work with them for an emergency authorization to rebuild the bridge as soon as we can.

Let me stop there and take your questions.

Q There is this general concern after this disaster that the nation's infrastructure is crumbling. Do you think that's an overly-broad characterization, or do you think that this in general is a very serious problem nationwide?

SECRETARY PETERS: Well, we certainly have aging infrastructure here in the United States. Most of our infrastructure came about as long as 50 years ago, as the interstate highway system was being built. I do believe that America's highways and bridges are safe. Certainly we need to look to the future, and make sure that we're spending our money where we need to be spending the money; that we're prioritizing how we're spending it, and making sure that we're meeting those highest priorities first.

Q Do you think there is generally under investment?

SECRETARY PETERS: There are always going to be more needs than there are monies available, and I think the way we solve that is prioritization and making sure that we're giving states the flexibility and the ability by not carving this up into many, many sub-programs, and lots of earmark. And you give them the opportunity to put the money where it needs to be spent first.

We need to have that important conversation about how we fund infrastructure in the future, and it's something that I look forward to engaging with folks in. But immediately, let's take care of the situation in Minnesota, let's find out what caused it, and take all the corrective actions that we need to once we have that information.

Q You described the repairs as "minor" on the bridge. Isn't it true that they were working also on the steel joints that were corroded, that hold the bridge together?

SECRETARY PETERS: They were working on the joints. Now the joints are not what holds the bridge together. What the joints are is what allows the bridge to contract and expand with weather. So the joints -- my understanding is the joints that they were working on were those type of what we call expansion joints, that go between the plates, the steel plates, on the top of the bridge.

Q We're about three days into this crisis. Do you think we are close to having a sense of what the main thing was that went wrong?

SECRETARY PETERS: I don't, and I don't want to speculate on that. I think that's a role for the National Transportation Safety Board. Chairman Rosenker has been on the ground. We talked to him early Thursday morning. And we want to let them conduct a full investigation, and tell us. Speculation is not what we should engage in.

Q I know it's early, but have you heard back from any of the states yet about their bridges?

SECRETARY PETERS: Yes, ma'am, I have. I have heard that they're in the process of inspecting those bridges, re-inspecting them. I have not yet heard the results from that. But they are -- nearly ever state has responded to us that they're in the process of doing so.

Q Nothing jumps out, no immediate problems?

SECRETARY PETERS: Nothing immediate, no.

Q Bridge safety seems to be a shared responsibility between the state and the federal government. So will the culpability for some kind of -- for this kind of a disaster, will that rest on both shoulders as well?

SECRETARY PETERS: Well, let's not speculate until we know what happened for sure. As you indicated, there are shared responsibilities. The standards for inspecting bridges and responding to those inspections, the standards are set by the federal government; the states have the responsibility for carrying those out, and then reacting as they need to if the bridges are showing signs of wear and fatigue, ensuring that they are doing the rehabilitation they need to.

MR. STANZEL: If I may -- unless there are other questions on that --

Q I have one more question. Do you think there's going to be a need for legislative action in the near future? I know there was a measure introduced yesterday. Is there a need to tackle this right away? Is the President going to suggest some legislation, and should there be some kind of emergency supplemental bill to pay for some of these repairs?

SECRETARY PETERS: I think in the near term, let's find out what happened first. Certainly the nation's infrastructure is important to all of us, and we need to have a very thoughtful discussion on how we move forward and take care of that infrastructure in the future. In fact, I'm chairing a commission right now that is looking at that very thing. And we are in the process of making recommendations about how we respond to our nation's infrastructure needs for the future.

But it's an important and a thoughtful conversation that we should have. For example, we don't want to contradict a policy objective that says we need to use less foreign oil, we need to use cleaner-burning fuels, and then do something that would perhaps cause us to use more fuel. Fuel efficiency is important, all those things.

So let's put all these important, important issues on the table, think through them very thoroughly, and then decide together the best way to proceed.

Q The President said in his radio address that the $5 million that you've already announced is just the beginning of federal support. Is there other federal support that you're going to be announcing today, or is he going to be announcing today?

SECRETARY PETERS: We don't intend to offer to -- to announce any other support today, with the exception of the bill that was considered and passed in Congress that would allocate $250 million for the replacement of this important piece of infrastructure.

Q Was that what he was referring to?

SECRETARY PETERS: That is. And then that is something that we supported, and the Congress has supported as well. Absent that having happened, there is an emergency relief program for highways, and in that program we, the federal government, will cover the full cost of the replacement of this structure when the time -- when we're able to do that. But this bill that passed supercedes that, and makes that money immediately available once they're able to begin the reconstruction process.

Q Is $250 million enough?

SECRETARY PETERS: I think it is -- we believe it is enough. We need to do some --

Q (Inaudible.)

SECRETARY PETERS: That's something we have to look at very carefully. In some structures that have gone down, where there are piers that are left standing, that reconstruction can happen much more quickly. That is not the case here; the piers were damaged. We need to get in there and do some investigation on the site that we simply can't do until NTSB completes their work. So I would hate to speculate right now as to how long, but just to say this: We will use every innovative contracting method, incentives, all of those things that we know can help reestablish this important infrastructure as quickly as possible.

Q Have you guys determined the economic affect of this?

SECRETARY PETERS: Well, certainly it's a very important bridge; it carried a little over 140,000 vehicles a day into Minneapolis. Our folks have worked with the Minneapolis DOT not only to identify detour routes, so the traffic can get in, as well as supplementing transit services. We believe that if we can get those in place that the economic impact will be minimal, that we should be able too minimize any economic impact. And we're working very hard. In fact, already, detours in place, already new busses are running. So I think we'll minimize that impact.

Q What is the most updated figure that you're hearing on the toll?

SECRETARY PETERS: In terms of the fatalities there? Five, ma'am, five confirmed fatalities. There are still several people missing, although that number has come down dramatically. And I would defer to the folks on site there who have this number. But five confirmed fatals at this time.

Let me close with what you're going to see there. You're going to see an adjacent bridge that is up, and we'll likely have an opportunity to review the bridge collapse from that point. It is a pretty devastating scene; there are still a number of vehicles in the water, and the school bus, especially, is something, if you've seen the photographs of it. But seeing it yourself it is a very devastating scene. So our hearts, our thoughts and prayers go out to the citizens there who have suffered this tragedy. And we'll all work together to help them recover as quickly as possible.

MR. STANZEL: One thing I forgot to mention, also on board with us today is Senator Amy Klobuchar; Senator Norm Coleman; Congressman Keith Ellison, whose district we will be in; Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, and Congressman John Kline are also aboard Air Force One with us today.

Q Are they staying or are they coming back?

MR. STANZEL: I don't know their travel plans.

Thank you all.

END 8:50 A.M. EDT

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