Who's to Blame?

In the wake of the I-35W bridge collapse, it's time to take a hard look at the politicians and policies that may have contributed to the disaster

Amy Klobuchar, Minnesota's junior U.S. Senator, may have said it best: "A bridge in America just shouldn't fall down."

But shortly after 6 p.m. on August 1, one of them did. Anyone who reached the Mississippi river before Minneapolis police could cordon off a wide perimeter around the fallen I-35W bridge got a startling view of the disaster: smoke, sirens, choppers, cracked concrete, crushed cars, and the walking (and swimming) wounded.

During the frantic recovery efforts, politicians called a moratorium on finger-pointing. In a press conference 90 minutes after the collapse, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak and Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty pledged cooperation, despite their diametrically opposed politics.

It didn't last long. On August 2nd, Minnesota Congressman Jim Oberstar, a Democrat who chairs the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, assailed President George W. Bush from the House floor. In October 2003, Bush made a counter-offer on a transportation bill that left the budget for surface and bridge repair "still $90 billion below where his own Department of Transportation said it needed to be," Oberstar said. "This administration failed to support a robust investment in surface transportation and the funding to accompany it."

The Bush administration, for its part, immediately placed the blame squarely on Minnesota's state government. According to the Associated Press, "Bush's spokesman, Tony Snow, said that while the inspection did not indicate the bridge was at risk of failing, 'if an inspection report identifies deficiencies, the state is responsible for taking corrective actions.'"

The truth is there's plenty of blame to go around. The investigators and engineers at the National Transportation Safety Board expect to spend roughly 18 months conducting a thorough investigation into exactly what went wrong. But it's not too early to ask about the decisions and policies that may have contributed to this disaster. After all, there are 1,097 bridges in Minnesota deemed "structurally deficient."

Says one longtime Republican state transportation lobbyist: "To cut to the heart of it: Who's culpable?"

 

GOVERNOR

Tim Pawlenty

In 1999, as state House majority leader, Pawlenty said that he would not support a gas tax increase for freeway lane expansion. In 2001, Pawlenty called the metro's roads a "vehicular prison system." But in both cases, Pawlenty unveiled complicated plans to pour money into the state's road system that, in many regards, didn't come to fruition.

Then Pawlenty emerged as a Republican gubernatorial candidate in 2002. His opponent for the party's nod, Brian Sullivan, outflanked Pawlenty to the right by outspokenly opposing a gas tax increase. Pawlenty followed suit, signing a no-new-taxes pledge with the Taxpayers League, handcuffing his options before he was even elected.

Pawlenty made good on his promise. In 2005 and 2007 the governor gleefully vetoed a gas tax increase, even as Republicans like Ron Erhardt, who was among the sponsors of the measure both times, tried to get Pawlenty to see the necessity of it. "We were quite happy in 2007 because we got a bipartisan plan passed," Erhardt says. "The leadership in this party has dropped the ball on funding transportation issues, just because somebody, a big somebody, signed a no-new-taxes pledge."

A gas tax increase that went to a dedicated fund for transportation could have taken the metro's roadways and transit system out of the 1970s, and into the future. More importantly, the federal government requires that states match funding up to 20 percent to receive money earmarked for transportation infrastructure. "Go ask MnDOT how much money is sitting in Washington for us, that we left on the table because we don't have a gas tax," says a transportation lobbyist.

 

Mitigating factor: As much as any one person can shoulder the blame, Pawlenty looks culpable. The collapse happened on his watch, after all, and his lieutenant governor, whom he also appointed to be transportation commissioner, was supposed to know about MnDOT's alarming reports. But to his credit, Pawlenty has finally done an about face on the gas tax.  

TRANSPORTATION COMMISSIONER

Carol Molnau

Molnau doesn't have the kind of technical background you'd expect from the person responsible for building and maintaining the state's transportation infrastructure. Raised on a farm in Lafayette, Molnau has demonstrated her rural bona fides by milking cows, and once famously beat former Governor Jesse Ventura in a keg-throwing contest.

But after Pawlenty tapped her to be his running mate, and the two breezed into office in 2002, she soon found herself taking on a second job as transportation commissioner. Although it may have seemed an odd fit, the appointment posed two advantages for Pawlenty: It allowed him to cut the $108,000 salary typically paid to someone in that position, and put an anti-tax ally in charge of an agency with an annual budget of $2 billion.

Upon taking over the two roles, Molnau vowed that she would bring "reform and accountability" to MnDOT. It's been all downhill since then. She sparred with the governor over the North Star commuter line, and due to a controversy over bids, delayed the much-needed overhaul of the Crosstown and I-35W Commons south of Minneapolis. Molnau has toed the line against an increase in a gas tax, and spoken out against funding for mass transit, emphasizing politics over policy. As a result, she has overseen the steady decline—by fiscal neglect—of the state's road and bridge infrastructure.

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