MnDOT parsimonious with bridge-collapse info

  • Article by: MIKE KASZUBA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 6, 2007 - 10:02 PM

Lawyers, legislators -- even a judge -- are annoyed by MnDOT's tight control of inspectors and others who have details on the 35W bridge.

In the three months since the Interstate 35W bridge collapse, the Minnesota Department of Transportation's increasingly tight control on information has drawn the ire of lawyers for victims, legislators, contractors, union officials and a Ramsey County judge.

While the agency had made public thousands of pages of material in response to an unprecedented number of inquiries, MnDOT has in recent weeks restricted access to its officials and records. Requests to interview state bridge inspectors have been denied, MnDOT often now only answers media questions in writing and requests for public records have gone unfilled for months.

"We're finding it difficult to get information," Sen. Kathy Saltzman, a DFL majority whip, who echoed the frustration of many DFL lawmakers over MnDOT's overall response.

But when it comes to the construction of the new 35W bridge, MnDOT is eager to talk.

In mid-September, reporters were given a chance to meet with Jon Chiglo, the project manager for the new bridge, to discuss how that project would proceed. That same week, a Star Tribune request to interview bridge engineers about the collapsed span was denied.

"We prefer to issue the answers in writing," MnDOT spokeswoman Lucy Kender wrote in an email.

State Transportation Commissioner Carol Molnau, who has been under fire since the collapse, has only made limited public appearances. State bridge engineer Dan Dorgan, who was initially at press conferences following the collapse, is no longer available for interviews, according to MnDOT. At one point last month, the agency declined to give reporters access to the MnDOT employee in charge of requests for public information.

Put it in writing

Bob McFarlin, MnDOT's assistant to the commissioner, declined to be interviewed but said in an e-mail that the agency's practices would continue. "Written exchanges allow us to provide media the most complete and accurate responses," he wrote.

"Due to the incredible daily crush of media inquiries," McFarlin added, "... MnDOT staff, in large part, is simply not available for one-on-one media interviews."

But at a press briefing last week, reporters were issued hard hats and safety vests and escorted to the bridge site where they could interview Chiglo and Peter Sanderson, the project manager for Flatiron Constructors, the builders of the new bridge.

Late last month, reporters were also invited to a "charrette" session where MnDOT, the bridge's builders and members of the public discussed the new bridge's design, including its color.

MnDOT spokesman Kevin Gutknecht, standing near Sanderson last week, defended the access the agency is providing. "We think the building of the new bridge is incredibly important," he said.

"We all want to know why the old bridge collapsed, there's no question about that," Gutknecht said. But he said MnDOT must also give the official National Transportation Safety Board investigation a chance to run its course.

Keeping information secret

On the same day, however, James Schwebel, an attorney who represents roughly 25 victims of the collapse, filed a court motion that accused MnDOT of granting access to the bridge site to a consulting firm hired by the agency "while lawyers representing collapse victims and their families have had to go to court to receive only limited access."It is unconscionable that this vital information accumulated at taxpayers' expense should be kept secret," Schwebel said of the consultant, Wiss, Janney, Elstner & Associates, which is being paid nearly $2 million by MnDOT to conduct a separate investigation from the NTSB probe.

MnDOT also was criticized last week by Ramsey County District Judge Edward Cleary. Cleary sided with MnDOT in blocking a challenge to the process the agency used to award the new bridge contract to Flatiron, but at the same time chastised MnDOT on its tactics.

Losing bidders for the new bridge contract and others in the road construction industry have accused MnDOT of trying to block scrutiny of how Flatiron was chosen by withholding technical data that was used to make the decision, and only releasing it the same day a contract was signed with Flatiron and the design for the new bridge was unveiled.

Until the day MnDOT signed a contract with Flatiron, the agency also withheld the identities of the six people who served on a technical advisory committee that scored the proposals submitted by Flatiron and three other competitors.

'Cloaked in secrecy'

Cleary scolded MnDOT in his ruling. "In the Court's opinion, it is unfortunate that MnDOT chose to ignore the advice given to it by its sister agency, the Minnesota Department of Administration. By signing a contract with the successful bidder before releasing the underlying data that led to that decision, MnDOT cloaked the decision in secrecy," the judge wrote.

In an e-mail response to the ruling, McFarlin said MnDOT acted "in the public interest" and told reporters not to focus on the judge's criticisms. "I think it is important to stay focused on the legal aspects of this ruling," he wrote.

Mike Kaszuba • 612-673-4388

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