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

Last legislative session, Democrats attempted to staunch the ballooning deficit. The legislature approved a measure that would eventually raise the gas tax by 7.5 cents, which would have been the first gas tax hike since 1988.

But Seifert sneered at even this modest transporation fee. "Joe Sixpack back home does not need more tax increases," he said in March. "This is a morbidly obese tax increase."

Even with Seifert pooh-poohing it, the measure initially cleared the House and Senate with 11 Republican legislators joining their DFL colleagues in voting for it. But the margin in the House was just one vote over the two-thirds threshold needed to override a veto.

After Pawlenty spiked the bill, Seifert led an intense lobbying campaign to convince Republicans not to contradict the Governor. Those who had voted in favor were inundated with phone calls and emails. Eventually four Republicans (Jim Abeler, Bud Heidgerken, Dean Urdahl and Kathy Tingelstad) flipped their votes. The veto held.

"It was a loyalty to the Governor kind of thing," says Rep. Frank Hornstein (DFL-St. Paul), who sits on the transportation finance committee. "This was a huge issue for Marty Seifert."

Following the bridge collapse, Seifert has continued to insist that a gas tax increase is unnecessary.

Mitigating factor: Seifert was merely carrying water for the Governor. His spirited defense was at some level standard partisan politics.

The Bridge Builders

Kurt Fhurman, the inspector responsible for signing off on the I-35W bridge every year since 1994, thinks he knows who is responsible for the collapse.

"Go after the designer," Fhurman angrily told the New York Daily News several days after the collapse. "Go ask him why he did what he did."

The bridge was designed in 1961 by Sverdrup & Parcel, a prominent firm that also designed Busch Stadium in St. Louis, the Superdome in New Orleans, and the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel. The bridge was built between 1964 and 1967 by Industrial Construction Company and Hurcon Inc. Both businesses are now defunct.

Even though it's early in the investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board is already raising questions about the bridge's design. One issue of concern: the bridge didn't have any piers built into the riverbed. It also lacked what are commonly referred to as "engineering redundancies"—back-up support built into the system to minimize damage if one part fails.

Last week, the NTSB and Federal Highway Authority focused on so-called gusset plates, steel sheets that connected the bridge's girders together. The inspectors said the plates may have been a design flaw.

Mitigating factor: To be fair, the bridge was built in a dark period of American construction. In the 1960s and early 1970s, builders and policy officials believed engineering had evolved to the point where bridges could be built on the cheap—a notion that disappeared just a few years after the I-35W bridge opened.

Progressive Contractors, Inc.

At the time of the bridge collapse, 18 employees from Progressive Contractors were in the midst of completing $2.4 million in repairs. The St. Michael-based construction company, founded in 1971, had been working on the bridge since early June. For two months, workers drilled into the surface with jackhammers, cut away pavement with saws, and poured concrete.

But what raised eyebrows about the work was the sheer volume of equipment and construction materials deployed on the bridge at the time of collapse. Federal authorities estimate that the bridge was supporting 100 tons of gravel, at least two semitrailers, and an unknown quantity of concrete, which weighs close to 100 pounds per cubic foot. Neither Progressive Contractors nor MnDOT conducted a study to scrutinize how the construction work might impact the bridge's safety.

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters highlighted this potential factor in a statement released last week. "Given the questions being raised by the NTSB, it is vital that states remain mindful of the extra weight construction projects place on bridges," she said.

Progressive Contractors, which specializes in bridge and highway construction, maintains that it's not unusual to have that much equipment onsite. "Their people are just as baffled as everyone," says David Lillehaug, the attorney representing the company. "We're just scratching our heads with this."

Progressive Contractors also disputes reports that the bridge had been swaying prior to the collapse. "We have now met with every single worker who was on the bridge when it collapsed. None of them observed or reported any unusual swaying," said Tom Sloan, vice president of the company's bridge division, in a statement released last week.

But Abolhassan Astaneh-Asl, a University of California, Berkeley professor who is a bridge expert, says that construction activities may have been one factor in creating a "perfect storm" that led to the failure of the structure. "The last straw may be the construction," he says.

Mitigating factor: MnDOT's chief bridge engineer, Dan Dorgan, has said the I-35W bridge was built to meet military specifications, meaning that it should have been able to withstand bumper-to-bumper traffic of flatbeds carrying M1 Abrams tanks, which would be significantly heavier than the construction equipment and materials on the bridge at the time of the collapse.

The Previous Administrations

Remember the famous "Jesse Checks" that Governor Ventura put in everyone's mailbox? Those were heady times from 1999 to 2001, when the state was running a surplus and Governor Turnbuckle gave Minnesotans a rebate on sales tax collection. Everyone cheered because Jesse got us our money back.

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