Gussets, public servants both let Minnesota down

  • Article by: NICK COLEMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 17, 2008 - 12:24 AM

The head of the National Transportation Safety Board says inspections of the Interstate 35W bridge would not have found flaws in the design of the bridge, which opened in 1967. Such inspections would not have learned if Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone or whether the moon is made of green cheese, either.

But the obsolete design of the bridge was known to be flawed long before the bridge fell into the Mississippi last Aug. 1, killing 13 and injuring 145. It was a "fracture critical" bridge, meaning that if any major part failed, the whole thing would fall. It was precisely that lack of redundancy that led worried officials to order stepped up inspections of the "structurally deficient" bridge, which carried 140,000 vehicles a day, pounded by far more traffic than was intended.

So NTSB board chairman Mark Rosenker was disingenuous, at best, when he said "routine" inspections would not have found a flaw in the bridge gussets that the NTSB is blaming for the collapse. "Routine?"

There was nothing "routine" about the bridge, including its inspections. It had so many problems that it was the most-inspected bridge in Minnesota and engineers were openly worried (according to a story in this paper Aug. 19) about the dangers of a collapse.

Inspections did find that many of the gussets were corroded and thinning, plus a host of other significant problems ranging from cracks and missing bolts to a tilted bridge pier and frozen expansion rollers.

The question isn't whether the original designers were distracted by thoughts of Marilyn Monroe as they were planning the bridge. The question is why wasn't the bridge closed, or fixed, by those in charge now?

But the gussets are a godsend to officials who want the public to believe they had no idea the bridge was in jeopardy and there was nothing that could have been done about it.

Neither statement is true.

The gussets are Minnesota's O Ring. When the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986, the flaw was a gasket called an O ring that failed in cold temperatures. But the O ring problem was known to the officials who crossed their fingers and launched the shuttle.

The O ring didn't decide to launch itself, and the bridge didn't decide to stay open to traffic, despite its many flaws.

There is plenty of blame to go around, and it is not partisan to say so. As I wrote the day after the bridge collapse, "both political parties have tried to govern on the cheap." But the present administration is in the hands of a political philosophy that has not been willing to invest enough in the future while leaning, too heavily, on what was built in the past.

It's Tim Pawlenty's watch.

Blaming the collapse on design errors made by people who are gone from the scene does not go far enough in finding responsibility for an avoidable tragedy.

Even if the bridge was made of chewing gum and baling wire, the state was responsible for keeping it safe, and for keeping it up.

Still, Gov. Pawlenty rushed forth to proclaim his administration free of responsibility. That argument would be easier to swallow if his administration had a great record on transportation except for one itty-bitty bridge collapse. The opposite is true: Transportation has suffered one fiasco after another. The bridge was not an exception.

A year before the collapse, MnDOT chose not to follow a consultant's advice to spend $2 million reinforcing the bridge. Instead, it chose to step up inspections, and to resurface the bridge deck.

That resurfacing, underway at the time of the collapse, added almost 300 tons to a fracture critical bridge that was structurally deficient.

But that repaving is a metaphor for the state we're in, and our crumbling infrastructure. Faced with a failing bridge, the state chose a move that was cosmetic: Make it look better. If the bridge had waited to fall until the resurfacing was done, you might have thought you were crossing a brand new bridge as you fell into the abyss.

So far, the NTSB's performance has been as flawed as the gussets: Apparently, it is not scrutinizing MnDOT's performance in inspecting and maintaining the bridge. All it has done is confirm statements by Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters and other finger-crossers that the gussets were to blame.

The fallout from Aug. 1 is far from over. And Tuesday's NTSB report won't end it.

Minnesota was not just let down by flawed steel, but by a flawed commitment to safety and the public good.

That, sadly, is still in view.

Nick Coleman •

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