Buzz begins over the future of state transportation commissioner

  • Article by: CURT BROWN, ROCHELLE OLSON and PAT LOPEZ , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 7, 2007 - 6:35 AM

"I have not offered my resignation nor do I think I'm going to do that," Carol Molnau said. Some expressed a lack of confidence in her ability.

As questions mounted Monday about her political future and ability to lead the Minnesota Department of Transportation, Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau said she will not resign in the aftermath of the Interstate 35W bridge collapse.

"I have not offered my resignation nor do I think I'm going to do that," said Molnau, who serves in a unique dual role as Gov. Tim Pawlenty's second-in-command and state transportation commissioner.

Although last week's disaster occurred on her watch, Pawlenty defended her. "Yes. I think she's doing a good job," he said.

Molnau said she believes Minnesotans remain confident in MnDOT's ability to safeguard the state's bridges.

Rescue efforts, meanwhile, continued as divers from the Navy and the FBI arrived. The FBI also brought an unmanned submarine to help find at least eight bodies believed to be in the Mississippi River.

The buzz over Molnau's future began early Monday when Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, said in a MPR interview that he lacked confidence in her leadership. He said MnDOT "has not had an advocate at the top."

Molnau is a longtime opponent of gas-tax increases, the proceeds of which would be dedicated to road and bridge construction and maintenance.

When asked whether he feels "confident that she can continue to do the job," Murphy answered: "No."

Murphy shouldered some responsibility himself, pointing out that he was elected to the Legislature in 1992 along with Molnau and Pawlenty.

"For the last 15 years, we've failed to make headway on transportation issues with several people being culpable, myself included," Murphy told the Star Tribune. "I just don't think that right now, while we still have folks missing, we need to go through a finger-pointing exercise. I think that would be tacky."

David Gaither, chief of staff to Pawlenty until late 2006, said he fears Molnau could become a distraction as the transportation funding debate heads for a possible special session where legislators could enact the first gas-tax increase since 1988.

Pawlenty has been loyal to commissioners in troubled times, most recently Health Commissioner Diane Mandernach, who suppressed information about cancer deaths related to taconite mining.

Gaither said in an interview that Molnau stepping aside "might be the right and most noble thing to do. The public has to come away with trust the government has their safety first and foremost, and when in doubt, you must err on the side of caution."

Asked Monday whether he still had confidence in Molnau as transportation commissioner, Pawlenty said anyone who would jump to the conclusion that Molnau's job is at risk "should be cautious."

'Tension ... is palpable'

Larry Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the Humphrey Institute, said Molnau will have difficulty hanging on to her post.

"The tension between her and the Legislature is palpable," he said.

If she is found to have been involved in decisions regarding the bridge, he said, "that would be the death warrant of her commissionership."

On Monday, Molnau continued to focus on the task of ensuring that Minnesota's bridges are safe. Nearly 400 bridges in the state are considered a high priority for inspection, she said, because they have similar designs to the I-35W bridge or carry a high volume of traffic.

The inspection work on those bridges has not begun, and MnDOT spokesman Bob McFarlin did not have a timeline, but said, "I hope that will be soon."

McFarlin also continued to decline to comment on whether construction workers on the bridge in the days before the collapse reported that it was wobbling.

On Monday, a spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board declined to comment on the reports. The spokesman said the issue may be addressed at an agency briefing either today or Wednesday.

MnDOT also tried to end speculation that the additional weight and vehicle traffic that the bridge has experienced since it opened in 1967 might have contributed to the collapse. Assistant state engineer Gary Peterson said enough safety designs were built in to the original bridge to accommodate today's traffic flows and commercial vehicles.

MnDOT has pulled the names and telephone numbers of bridge inspectors from the agency's website as a precaution after the inspectors started getting numerous phone calls, including some that were possibly threatening.

Also Monday, President Bush signed legislation directing $250 million to rebuild the bridge. The bill was passed by Congress over the weekend.

Meanwhile, after the first Monday rush hours since the bridge collapse, traffic officials said commuters were adapting well.

Submarine joins effort

Divers from the FBI and the U.S. Navy's Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit arrived to relieve the stretched-thin teams of area divers, but by day's end no bodies had been recovered.

Thirteen FBI divers spent Monday using submersible sonar to map the underwater disaster site. They may begin diving today. An unmanned FBI submarine equipped with sonar, lights, cameras and a grabbing arm will be used, said Paul McCabe, special agent in the FBI's Minneapolis office.

Similar FBI evidence teams have worked on death scenes ranging from the 1996 TWA Flight 800 explosion over the Atlantic Ocean to the 2003 Dru Sjodin kidnapping and murder.

The first 100-ton crane from St. Paul's Carl Bolander & Sons, hired by MnDOT for debris removal, crawled down a river road to begin the delicate job of removing concrete slabs, twisted steel and wrecked vehicles from the site.

Officials hope clearing the site will help them locate bodies and bring closure to waiting families.

"At this point, the only way to get at them will be to move the heavy debris out of the way," Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek said.

A Bolander spokesman said workers would begin pulling debris and cars from the river later this week.

Investigators think the collapse began somewhere on the north side of the bridge.

An NTSB helicopter with a high-resolution camera is examining debris in precise detail. NTSB spokesman Terry Williams said salvagers will collect critical pieces of the bridge and investigators will examine them at an undisclosed location.

Over the weekend, workers pulled one car from the water, but Stanek said he could not say when they might begin to pull more cars or bridge pieces out. Stanek said that the recovery work is essentially "bank to bank" and that additional patrol boats are searching downstream 6 miles to the Ford Bridge.

Recovering, waiting

While the official numbers remain at five people confirmed dead and eight missing, only 10 bridge victims remained at area hospitals Monday. That includes five in critical condition at Hennepin County Medical Center.

As two funerals were held Monday, the wait continued for others. Lisa Jolstad of Mora, Minn., said she's hoping for word about her husband Greg (Jolly) Jolstad in the next couple of days. She plans to stay home and wait for word. "When they find him, they will send a chaplain," she said.

Jolstad said she has been told her husband, a construction worker, is trapped under the bridge wreckage upstream, meaning divers should be able to find him.

"I just want to know where he is. I just want to get him out of the water," Jolstad said.

 

Staff writers Jim Foti, David Chanen, Herón Márquez Estrada, Jon Tevlin, Maura Lerner, Bill McAuliffe and Jeff Shelman contributed to this report.

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