If you listen to Minnesota's officials, it's almost like the bridge never fell. It couldn't have. After all, they had a great plan for keeping it up. On paper.
Get ready to be gusseted.
I doubt that many Minnesotans heard of gussets before Aug. 1, but since the collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge, "gusset" has become a favorite word in the mouths of politicians, particularly those looking to cast suspicion not on their politics or policies, but on inanimate steel objects.
Gussets are steel plates used to reinforce joists or connect girders. Although a three-year study of the problems of the ailing I-35W bridge did not focus attention on the bridge's gussets, and although the bridge was still in the Mississippi River, it took only a week after the bridge fell for the Bush administration's secretary of transportation, Mary Peters, to finger the culprits: Gussets.
She was immediately echoed by a private consulting firm hired by the Pawlenty-Molnau administration within hours of the collapse -- without public bid. That firm Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates, was hired for $2 million -- coincidentally, the cost of a plan for reinforcing the bridge that was rejected by the Minnesota Department of Transportation months before the collapse.
The Pawlenty administration has been accusing critics of jumping to conclusions about the cause of the collapse because we argue, whatever the physical causes, that there was a dereliction of a public duty to keep bridges standing and bridge users alive.
It isn't the critics who are jumping to self-serving conclusions. It is officials who are trying to manage the political fallout of the collapse and who, after months of cautious release of information to the public, are complaining that the news media are demanding more.
Did the bridge really fall?
If you listen to Minnesota's officials, it's almost like the bridge never fell. It couldn't have. After all, they had a great plan for keeping it up.
This is an illustration of the disconnect between no-tax politics and the real world, where gravity is stronger than wishful thinking. One of the most heavily used bridges in the state was deficient and consultants were urging it be reinforced, but MnDOT tried to get by on the cheap. Instead of bolting plates to critical parts of the bridge, the state crossed its fingers and decided to step up inspections.
Darn those gussets.
Blame the physical cause
Pinpointing the physical cause of the collapse will require long forensic investigation. But CYA is Chapter One in the political playbook, so the pols are clinging to their Grassy Knoll Gusset theory.
Peters, the federal secretary of transportation, repeated her gusset tale Nov. 1, causing one gob-smacked Republican who heard her, Edina's Rep. Ron Erhardt, to state the obvious:
If gussets failed, he said, "What is that but a lack of maintenance?"
But even if it was the gussets, blaming the collapse on them is like blaming the 1986 explosion of the space shuttle Challenger on an O ring in a rocket booster. The failure that caused the deaths of seven crew members was the decision by NASA officials to proceed despite being warned that it was too cold to safely launch on a January morning.
Did MnDOT apply pressure?