The sulfur tanker that crashed into a highway bridge over the James River at Hopewell, Va., last year was operating at "a speed higher than necessary" at the time, a federal safety agency said yesterday.

The National Transportation Safely Board blamed the Feb. 24 accident on both the tanker Marine Floridian's speed and inadequate maintenance of an electric switch that cut power to the ship's steering motor moments before the crash.

The board previously had speculated that the switch could have caused the accident that sliced the Benjamin Harrison Bridge into two sections.

In its final report, the board added several other factors. "If the (Floridian's) steering room had been manned by a licensed and trained engineer, if the steering failure alarm had functioned, and if the vessel had been moving at a more moderate speed, the collision could have been avoided," it said. The ship was making 10 knots at the time - a rate the board said "was neither necessary nor prudent from a safety standpoint."

Remarkably only the bridge tender was hurt in the collision, which did $7 million damage to the bridge. State officials say they hope to reopen the span to traffic later this year.