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.

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.

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.

Turns out popular policy isn't always good policy. Aside from looking wasteful when the state budget bottomed out in 2002, those funds could have gone to a roadway system that everyone knew was badly in need of an overhaul. In 2000, the rebate took some $200 million away from transportation needs. More saliently, Ventura also urged lawmakers to cut license tab registration fees that year, a move that depleted the highway trust fund by some $170 million annually.

Ventura wasn't the only governor who was shortsighted with transportation funding. For years, Arne Carlson said he was against an increase in the gas tax, and though the state Senate passed one in 1997, the measure didn't pass the House because Carlson wouldn't support it. For most of his tenure, Carlson was more interested in using tollbooths as a revenue source, but the idea never took off.

In short, both governors ignored the fact that our roadways were deteriorating.

Mitigating factors: The gas tax, which was last increased in 1988 from 17 to 20 cents a gallon, has long been unpopular with Minnesotans. The state was running budget surpluses during most of Ventura and Carlson's tenures in office, and raising taxes didn't seem necessary.

 

The Bureaucracy

Aside from a lack of money to get matching funds for federal projects, the many steps required for reviewing and planning Minnesota's roadways and interstates is hopelessly tangled up in red tape.

For example, federal law requires that a regional planning agency oversee transportation dollars sent to the state. For the seven-county Twin Cities area, that agency is the Metropolitan Council. The council takes its cue from the Transportation Advisory Board, which was created by the state legislature in 1974. The board is responsible for reviewing MnDOT plans and reports, and issuing recommendations to the Met Council, which accepts or rejects the board's recommendation as a whole. Then the council takes its case to the legislature and the governor's office, which decide which projects need to be funded.

The biggest problem with the system, of course, is that urgent projects get lost in the bureaucratic shuffle, and pet projects jump to the head of the line—especially new construction rather than repair, because, politically speaking, such ventures are far sexier to lawmakers and constituents alike. In other words, the system is not only arcane, but also highly susceptible to politicization.

Mitigating factors: In recent years, the Met Council has had its work cut out for it, with folks like Pawlenty, Strom, and a host of other local neo-con think-tankers being openly hostile to the regional planning agency. Even if the Met Council and MnDOT had been working in perfect concert and sounding the bells for the right projects at the right time, it's likely their pleas would have fallen on deaf ears.

 

The Federal Government

Blaming the collapse of a bridge in Minnesota on the war in Iraq might seem like a parody of knee-jerk liberalism, but that doesn't mean there isn't some truth in it.

Of course, inadequate federal funding of transportation infrastructure is a phenomenon that precedes the present administration. Former DFL Sen. Dave Durenberger recalls the same frustration two decades earlier during the Reagan years. "I was trying to get colleagues and the president to see that our federal highway system was deteriorating at an alarming rate, but no one wanted to hear it," he says.

Even so, it's impossible not to think longingly of the $450 billion-plus we've squandered in Iraq. Terrorists might not have blown up the I-35W bridge, but they certainly distracted us from the pressing problems at home.

Mitigating factor: Donald Rumsfeld isn't transportation secretary.

 

Shiny New Toys

Politicians like to build things. They like ribbon cuttings and newspaper photos and structures bearing their own illustrious names. Proof of this phenomenon? The Robert C. Byrd Institute for Advanced Flexible Manufacturing.

Closer to home, the same phenomenon partly explains why the legislature can find half a billion dollars to spend on the Hiawatha light rail line, but can't scrape up sufficient resources to maintain roads and bridges. Or to cite a more egregious example, it's why, when all is said and done, we will likely have spent somewhere in the area of $2 billion dollars on sports stadiums. Nobody gets a PR boost when MnDOT allocates additional funds to reinforce gusset plates.

"Bridges actually are in better shape than a lot of other parts of our infrastructure," says Kent Harries, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Pittsburgh. "It's going to get worse, and it's going to get exponentially worse."

Mitigating factor: The argument pitting highways against public transit is wrongheaded. The truth is that substantial investment will have to be made in both to keep up with the state's transportation needs.

 

It's amazing how a tangle of steel and concrete and bodies in the Mississippi River can concentrate minds and galvanize action.

It wasn't 72 hours after the bridge collapsed that Governor Pawlenty was conceding the need to increase the gas tax. Congress signed off on a $250 million emergency appropriations bill before the week was over. By the end of last week, plans to build a new bridge were on the fast track. The goal is to have it finished by the end of 2008.

The investigation into what went wrong and how to prevent such tragedies in the future is a murkier business. The NTSB immediately had investigators on the ground poking through the wreckage. Eventually, the bridge will be reconstructed, piece by piece, much like a crashed airplane, in an effort to discover which part failed first.

But whatever combination of factors are ultimately deemed to have resulted in the dramatic collapse of the bridge, it may turn out that the biggest problem had nothing to do with concrete or steel but rather something much more human: a failure of planning and public policy.

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