Nick Coleman: State officials rolled dice on 35W bridge, and we all lost

  • Article by: NICK COLEMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 21, 2007 - 9:22 PM

Since the collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge, Gov. Tim Pawlenty and members of his administration have claimed that 1) no one knew the bridge might fail and 2) no critical maintenance was left undone because of spending limits.

Neither statement holds up.

Newspaper reports since the bridge collapse have revealed a lack of due diligence at the leadership level in the Transportation Department, which, because Pawlenty appointed Carol Molnau, his lieutenant governor, to do double duty as transportation commissioner, is one of the most politicized fiefdoms in state government.

Let's connect some dots.

"At no point did anyone say the bridge needed to be closed," the governor has said.

But according to an Aug. 19 Star Tribune story by reporters Tony Kennedy and Paul McEnroe, state officials had "talked openly" about the possibility of a bridge collapse.

Inspection reports dating to the 1990s suggested critical issues required "immediate maintenance" and calls for that maintenance grew more urgent after the Pawlenty administration took office in 2003.

Maybe it is coincidence that Pawlenty-Molnau imposed a no-tax ideology on state government, especially in transportation, where Molnau cut back on snowplowing while laying off employees and placing loyalists in key positions.

But what we have now in the Mississippi is a bridge that was carrying 140,000 vehicles a day despite missing bolts, cracked girders, severe corrosion and a tilted pier -- a bridge with parts "beyond tolerable limits."

A leader shouldn't say he didn't know the bridge might collapse. A leader demands to know why his appointees didn't tell him it might fall.

Tim Pawlenty only needs a mirror to answer that one.

His no-new-taxes mantra has left infrastructure needs woefully underfunded while allowing him to brag about tax savings that came at a high cost.

Last year, an outside consultant recommended reinforcing the bridge with steel plates. Molnau's department asked for alternatives. The consultant still recommended reinforcement but said increased inspections might be "most cost efficient."

The state had what it seemed to want -- a cheaper "fix." The administration now claims that reinforcing the bridge, which might have cost millions and required the bridge to close temporarily, was an unsafe option.

A bridge so unsafe that it can't be reinforced? That's a warning sign, people. Then, after choosing inspections, the state suspended them while road resurfacing took place. Officials were suppose to meet later this month to consider resuming inspections.

When the word went out on the evening of Aug. 1 that "the bridge fell," some people in state government didn't have to ask which one. Which is exactly the problem.

Thirteen people died.

Those lives weren't part of the calculations on July 24, 2006, when, according to the Star Tribune, state officials held an "investment strategy" meeting to discuss the bridge. If they had a "keep-it-up" meeting instead of an investment meeting, the bridge might not be in pieces.

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