State officials and their biggest union are at odds over the number of employees who work on bridge inspections and how many are needed.
A war of words between state transportation officials and the union representing the department's bridge inspectors about the safety of Minnesota's bridges continued to escalate Thursday.
A state bridge inspector currently working for his union stood before television cameras to repeat a warning he made in congressional testimony two days earlier, saying the Minnesota Department of Transportation "lacks the resources and staffing levels we need ... to keep motorists safe."
In response, department officials repeated their earlier rebuttal of the testimony by Bart Andersen, currently on leave from his department job while he works for AFSCME Council 5, the biggest state employee union. MnDOT contends staffing for bridge inspections is sufficient.
In his testimony before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Highways and Transit, Andersen told members, "In Minnesota, our Department of Transportation is broke, and our transportation system is broken."
Minnesota Democrat Jim Oberstar, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, called Andersen's testimony before Congress "a sobering look at the magnitude of the problem of inspecting and maintaining our nation's bridges. We need to act now; this is a problem that has gone unaddressed too long."
Oberstar, who has clashed recently with the Pawlenty administration and the transportation department, also praised Andersen for his "real courage" in taking his case to Congress.
The condition of Minnesota's bridges has been under scrutiny since the Aug. 1 collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge, which killed 13 people and injured more than 100. That span had a documented history of problems such as corrosion and cracks. The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the cause of the collapse.
Specifically, Andersen said the department has only 77 inspectors to examine 14,000 bridges. "There aren't enough hours in the workday for 77 inspectors to check 14,000 bridges the way we should," he testified.
The state countered by saying it has more than 200 employees who work on inspections of some 4,500 bridges, including those on the state highway system and local bridges that need extra attention. Local authorities are responsible for the rest of Minnesota's 20,000 bridges, the department said.
The state expanded on its rebuttal Thursday in a formal statement. "Mr. Andersen inaccurately concludes that MnDOT does not have enough employees and resources to properly inspect and maintain the bridges under its jurisdiction," wrote spokesman Bob McFarlin. "This simply is not the case.... Bridge preservation and safety is MnDOT's top priority."
Climate of fear alleged
But at a news conference held by the union Thursday, Bob Hiliker, AFSCME's liaison to the department, said the inspection of most bridges in the state falls on the shoulders of department personnel.
Union officials based their contentions on two department reports issued in 1998. "These are their numbers," Hiliker said. "In 10 years, it's gotten worse." But, he said, he had no statistics to back up that claim.
Hiliker also said that the number of bridge inspection crew members in the metro area has been shrinking, from 36 in 1995 to the current number of 27. And a week before the Aug. 1 collapse, a department official proposed shrinking the number of metro crews from five to four, Hiliker said.
McFarlin declined to comment on that allegation and didn't respond to the union's contention that the department is trying to gag employees to prevent them from speaking out.
"We're just not going to get into that," he said. "Perpetuating things like that doesn't serve the purposes of a dialogue."
Hiliker said union members "are intimidated and afraid to do their job. They're told to do your job and don't talk to the media."
Eliot Seide, director of AFSCME Council 5, said members' "morale has never been as low. They're working in an environment of blame and intimidation."
If the department would "give us sufficient resources and staff, we can do the job better than anyone," he said. "We've been warning for years about the lack of resources and lack of staff."
Clashes between the department and its largest union over the department's staffing and budget levels are nothing new. Earlier this year, the union said a "staffing crisis" would leave snowplows parked during winter storms, a contention the department denied.
Staff writer Kevin Diaz contributed to this report.
Bob von Sternberg 612-673-7184