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35W Bridge Collapse: Lessons Learned Two Years Later

August 05, 2009 By Conrad deFiebre
State transportation officials are touting lessons learned and changes made since the deadly collapse of the I-35W Mississippi River span two years ago, and some of these developments point a finger of responsibility at Minnesota's bridge management practices of the recent past.

MnDOT says it has beefed up its bridge inspection and maintenance staffs, improved internal communications about bridge conditions, and revised its procedures for checking key structural members and loading bridge decks.

In addition, the state has sued its structural engineering consultants, claiming they failed to carefully assess the doomed 35W span's deficiencies. And, perhaps most tellingly, it has launched a nation-leading bridge improvement program, committing $2.5 billion to replace or rehab 120 state highway spans over the next decade.

All of this is commendable. But it also supports criticism leveled at Gov. Tim Pawlenty and former Transportation Commissioner Carol Molnau for opposing new user revenues for roads and bridges and for slashing MnDOT's maintenance operations by more than $35 million in 2003 in favor of stepped-up highway construction without tax increases.

Shortly after the tragedy of Aug. 1, 2007, killed 13 people, injured 145 and drained $60 million from the Minnesota economy, state and federal officials insisted that the cause was strictly a faulty structural design from the 1960s - something the bridge's 21st century managers couldn't know about or address.

Latest developments, however, cast significant doubt on that clean bill of blamelessness.

* MnDOT hired seven new metro bridge inspectors in April, increasing the number of inspection crews from six to seven. Statewide, that makes 84 inspectors responsible for keeping an eye on 14,000 state, county and city bridges. "They have increased their efforts, but it took them nearly two years to do it," said Jennifer Munt, spokeswoman for AFSCME Council 5, the labor union that represents many MnDOT workers. "MnDOT still lacks the staff and the funds it needs to keep motorists safe."

* MnDOT's maintenance staff has grown by 281 AFSCME workers since the beginning of 2008, Munt said. This could begin to correct a chronic problem of bridge inspection findings being ignored because "MnDOT was broke," she added. But there's a catch. The Legislature this year transferred $35 million from MnDOT operations to reserves that could cover new construction cost overruns. "They've repeated the administration's mistakes," Munt said. "We're revisiting the problems of the past."

* MnDOT has new guidelines limiting the weight of thicker pavement and construction materials that can be placed on bridges. Such additions put hundreds of tons of new stress on the old 35W bridge over the years. And MnDOT engineers say they are paying more attention to bridge structural deficiencies noted by inspectors.

* URS Corp., the engineering consultants being sued by the state, urged a $2 million project in 2006 to reinforce gusset plates on the 35W span - steel girder connectors whose failure is the official chief cause of the collapse. Less than a year before the disaster, MnDOT rejected the recommendation. "That happens many times," Molnau told the Start Tribune in November 2007.

*  Finally, in the most aggressive response by any state in the wake of the 35W collapse, MnDOT quickly closed several other major bridges suspected of similar structural failings. Some have reopened and are scheduled for accelerated replacement - thanks to the Legislature's override in February 2008 of Pawlenty's veto of much-needed transportation funding.
As the Mankato Free Press editorialized about the 35W tragedy last year, "MnDOT officials, because of budget concerns, did not properly fix what was clearly a bridge that needed major repairs [and] had been rated severely deficient for 17 years ... It should give public officials pause the next time they think about keeping investments low to achieve a tax ranking. Our zeal to improve our tax ranking apparently trumped our zeal to keep the public safe."

Whoever or whatever was really to blame for the 35W disaster, Minnesota should never again shortchange its best efforts to make sure our bridges are safe to cross.

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