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

Mitigating factors: Molnau was in China when the bridge collapsed, which is somewhat symbolic of her tenure as transportation commissioner. But it's not her fault she was appointed to a job she wasn't qualified to do. After all, as Molnau told the Star Tribune, "Do I look at the bridge inspection reports? No ... I really believe we have professionals trained to do that."

 

MnDOT

Less than 24 hours after the bridge collapsed, Dan Dorgan, MnDOT's top bridge engineer, gamely faced a throng of TV cameras and microphones. Sweating profusely, Dorgan looked like a man undergoing an exceptionally painful colonoscopy. Here was a geek used to spending intimate time with bridge blueprints and inspection reports being forced to answer the question on everyone's mind: How could this happen?

Dorgan walked the press through the basics of bridge inspection, detailing the history of the I-35W bridge and defining the suddenly trenchant term "structurally deficient." But when asked if he was convinced that MnDOT had done everything it could to insure that the bridge was structurally sound, Dorgan provided his most revealing answer: "In light of what happened, I would say we thought we had done all we could. Obviously something went terribly wrong."

MnDOT's dysfunction has been well documented. In 2003, the Star Tribune ran a series of stories detailing myriad problems within the agency, from shoddy contracting to profligate spending to low-balling property owners when purchasing land for highways. To cite just one example of misplaced priorities, in 2002 MnDOT paid $10,750 to a conference speaker to detail "The Rise, Fall, and Rise of Harley Davidson."

MnDOT knew there was a problem with the bridge and was in a position to do something about it. In 2006, URS Corporation, one of the largest engineering firms worldwide, released an in-depth study of the I-35W bridge and offered three possible courses of corrective action to ensure the structure's safety. MnDOT, despite heated internal debate, chose the cheapest option: continued inspections.

This decision was made despite numerous obstacles that made meticulous visual examinations of the bridge nearly impossible. In fact, the URS report pointed out that access to some of the most vulnerable portions of the bridge was "very limited." Inspectors struggled with piles of pigeon shit, bats, spider webs, poor lighting, and angry motorists, who occasionally expressed their frustration at lane closures by hurling debris at MnDOT workers.

In sum, MnDOT has all the hallmarks of a paranoid bureaucracy more concerned with safe-guarding its turf and reputation than actually building and maintaining the state's transportation infrastructure. Considering this dysfunctional state of affairs and the chronic under-funding of the department, it's a wonder that more bridges haven't crumbled.

Mitigating factors: MnDOT has no power over budgeting. The agency must make do with the insufficient financial resources allocated by the legislature and the governor. "The professional staff over there assembles the best research that they can," says Rick Krueger, executive director of the Minnesota Transportation Alliance, a coalition of businesses, labor, and local governments that advocates for better roadways. "There's been a glaring lack of funding in transportation investment that needs to be addressed."

 

The Taxpayers League

Locally, the Taxpayers League led the way for a new era of small-government starve-the-beasters, and no one banged the drum more loudly than its then-president, David Strom. As the 2002 election returns came in and it became clear that Republicans would win big, Strom was not shy in proclaiming victory. "One word: mandate," he told the Star Tribune.

Strom and the league had reason to crow: They helped elect a slew of their candidates, most of them signing a no-new-taxes pledge. Among them was gubernatorial candidate Tim Pawlenty.

In deference to his benefactors, Pawlenty led an unprecedented era of slash-and-burn politics, most of his policies heartily endorsed by Strom. In 2004, for instance, a Metro Transit bus strike instigated by Pawlenty was cheered by Strom and other anti-transit blowhards on the sidelines. And every time Pawlenty vetoed an increase in the gas tax, it wasn't hard to see the governor's pen was being directed by the Taxpayers League.

When word got around last week that Pawlenty was finally considering a gas tax hike in the face of the catastrophe, Strom, who is no longer the president of the league, piped up that Pawlenty had "panicked." But perhaps it's Strom and his ilk who are panicked, after realizing that their brand of bull-headed ideology hamstrings government to the point where it can't perform its most basic function: Protecting the citizenry.

Mitigating factor: Strom has moved on from his post as the head of the Taxpayers League, clearing the way for former State Rep. Phil Krinkie, whose hard-line stance on taxes has earned him the nickname "Dr. No."

 

STATE HOUSE MINORITY LEADER

Marty Seifert

The House minority leader has been Pawlenty's staunchest deputy in fighting DFL efforts to increase the gas tax in recent years, despite glaring holes in the state's transportation budget. It's now projected that over the next six years there will be an annual funding shortfall of $2.4 billion for transportation projects. Over the next two decades, the funding gap is expected to reach more than $30 billion.

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