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Must Read: Somber procession planned for new Minneapolis span

MINNEAPOLIS - 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,' U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters said. '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.