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A member of the National Transportation Safety Board said Tuesday that the public deserves reassurance that the federal investigation into the I-35W bridge collapse is above politics.
"There's been so much controversy over this accident,'' NTSB Board Member Kathryn O'Leary Higgins said in an interview. "One way to address it is to have a public hearing.''
But Higgins and fellow board member Deborah A.P. Hersman lost their bid Monday to conduct an open meeting of the NTSB board and staff before the bridge investigation is complete. At such a meeting, board members could air what's known to date and take public testimony.
Three of the five board members, including Chairman Mark Rosenker, voted not to hold an interim hearing after NTSB field investigators said it could slow their progress.
The development angered Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
"I'm first puzzled, then annoyed and now perturbed with Mr. Rosenker,'' Oberstar said Tuesday. "This is the only bridge collapse in decades and it deserves a hearing.''
Higgins said Tuesday that she sympathizes with staff concerns a possible delay of the final report, but she said it's more important to maximize transparency. In January, the NTSB was criticized by Oberstar and others for appearing to prematurely blame the collapse solely on a design error that happened 40 years ago.
Higgins said an interim hearing on the bridge could possibly diffuse "raging" political debate in Minnesota, where Democrats and Republicans have fought bitterly over transportation funding.
She said an interim hearing could address whether maintenance and corrosion were factors in the collapse. In addition, the NTSB could possibly discuss why no one caught the crucial design error -- undersizing of certain gusset plates -- when the bridge was built in the 1960s, Higgins said.
"Our aging transportation infrastructure has been the topic of many public and Congressional debates in the past few years, and the topic is not likely to move out of the public consciousness any time soon,'' Higgins and Hersman wrote in a statement of dissent.
Oberstar said he wrote to Rosenker in January, requesting an interim hearing. When the NTSB chairman informed Oberstar Monday that no hearing would be held, the congressman requested to see the NTSB staff report on the issue. Rosenker told him the report won't be disclosed.
"Speed is less important than fact,'' said Oberstar, who will ask the NTSB to reconsider its decision. "There's a trend (at the NTSB) away from good practices of the past.''
Oberstar said an interim hearing could possibly yield new information. Refusing to hold such a hearing is "contemptous of those who are not on the board,'' he said. Oberstar said Rosenker told him that the NTSB doesn't believe it could glean more information.
Higgins and Hersman agreed that a hearing could possibly yield new information. They also reasoned that an open meeting could provide reassurance that the NTSB is conducting a truly independent investigation "that transcends local arguments and politics.''
Rosenker said Monday that the NTSB will continue to release findings of the investigation as it moves along. The agency's investigative team didn't want an interim investigative hearing "because of the amount of factual information collected... and the significant progress being made,'' he said.
Higgins and Hersman said NTSB staff also was worried that independent parties to the investigation might stop participating with NTSB investigators if a hearing were conducted.
Barring unexpected developments, the NTSB will hold a public meeting by the end of the year in Washington, D.C., to review and accept the final report, Rosenker has said.
Interim public hearings on NTSB investigations don't happen very often. There have been 15 since January 2000. The last was held in August 2006 on the NTSB's investigation into a 2005 motorcoach fire near Wilmer, Texas.
Higgins and Hersman said the NTSB was roundly criticized for not holding an interim hearing on the 2006 fatal crash of Comair Flight 5191, which killed 47 passengers and two crew members in Kentucky.
The two dissenting board members said the fatal collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis Aug. 1 ranks first in U.S. history in terms of injuries (145 people) and first in the number of vehicles (about 110). It ranks second in deaths with 13. The deadliest bridge collapse investigated by the NTSB happened 40 years ago on the border of West Virginia and Ohio, where 46 people died when U.S. Hwy. 35 fell down.
Gov. Tim Pawlenty agrees with the NTSB's decision not to hold an interim hearing, said Brian McClung, his spokesman.
"The NTSB has made a number of public pronouncements regarding the investigation,'' McClung said. "We assume they will continue to make safety concerns and other appropriate information public in a timely manner.''
Tony Kennedy • 612-673-4213