Transportation officials were challenged by a shortage of funds and a structure that hindered decisionmaking in the years before the collapse.
The collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge followed years when state officials struggled with a lack of money for repairs, wrestled with a confusing chain of command and missed opportunities to detect potentially fatal problems, a new legislative study has concluded.
The findings were another rebuke for the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) and came this time from a Minneapolis law firm hired by a joint legislative committee.
Sitting beside a 15-inch-thick report, a team of lawyers said Wednesday that MnDOT did not do enough to improve the bridge's "poor" rating over a 17-year period before the Aug. 1 collapse.
Pawlenty administration officials denied that funding issues affected safety decisions, but some legislators came away wanting more answers.
"I'm suggesting that a lack of management and lack of identifying red flags has darn near brought this department down," said Rep. Neil Peterson, R-Bloomington. "Somehow, somebody had better pull this up [and] get their act together."
Robert Stein, a former University of Minnesota Law School dean and lead lawyer for the investigative team, said that "the collapse should not be viewed as an isolated event." He said the five-month review was not intended to determine why the bridge fell and "was not a widespread condemnation" of MnDOT. But he said the collapse served as "a tragic call" to find out what could be done to prevent another such disaster.
The report, which was based on reviews of 24,000 records and nearly 50 interviews, said there was widespread criticism of Gov. Tim Pawlenty's decision to allow Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau to also serve as state transportation commissioner. According to the report, two former governors and a series of former MnDOT commissioners agreed that the move was "inappropriate," and one of them characterized it as a "huge mistake." The state Senate removed Molnau from her MnDOT role in late February.
Compounding the problems, the report said, was the fact that while MnDOT's bridge experts were housed in one office, those responsible for inspecting and repairing the bridge were in another office miles away.
For Pawlenty and MnDOT, the harshest criticism may have come in the report's finding that funding influenced decisions concerning the bridge. The decision to postpone a $13 million redecking -- and instead proceed with a $3.5 million overlay that was underway when the bridge fell -- meant "funding considerations deferred work on the bridge that would have improved its structural integrity, not just maintain its drivability," the report concluded.
Pawlenty and Tom Sorel, the new MnDOT commissioner, took exception to the conclusion.
"Addressing the condition and safety needs of our bridge system has never been, and never will be, subject to question due to budgetary concerns," said Sorel, who appeared Wednesday before the joint committee.
Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung downplayed the findings and said the formal investigation of the collapse by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) would determine why the bridge collapsed. "It is not possible to know whether anything in this report is relevant to the bridge collapse," he said.
McClung added that the NTSB had tentatively identified undersized gusset plates as a likely lead contributor to the collapse and said that bridge maintenance and inspections -- two areas of focus in Wednesday's findings -- would not have identified the error in the gusset's original design.
The investigation by the Gray Plant Mooty law firm has been characterized as being pushed by DFL critics of MnDOT and Pawlenty who have a majority on the joint legislative committee. Republican legislators have also described the probe as unnecessary and at one point said the law firm was compromised because it had pushed a lawsuit against MnDOT.
Of 15 committee members, six are Republicans, three of whom were missing Wednesday.
The report examined four key moments that preceded the collapse.
One occurred in 1996, when gusset plates buckled on a similar bridge in Ohio -- an episode that the Gray Plant Mooty investigators said should have been communicated to MnDOT but was not.
Although the Ohio episode was dissected in a civil engineering trade journal that MnDOT subscribed to, the report said neither MnDOT nor its consultants were aware of the incident. Earlier reports had also shown that MnDOT personnel attended a conference where the Ohio failure was a featured topic.
While not faulting MnDOT, Wednesday's report concluded that "of all the issues we reviewed in our investigation, this one [in Ohio] appears to have held the most promise" for linking the incident with what the NTSB said may have been a key factor in the I35W collapse.
A second important moment, according to the report, was the decision in 2006 by MnDOT and consultant URS Inc. to back away from pushing for an ambitious -- and costly -- redecking of the bridge. "We thought that was a good thing to do to add redundancy" to the bridge, Don Flemming, a URS official, told investigators. "At one point, [MnDOT] told us that redecking was not going to happen until 2020 or '22."
A third key moment came when URS officials, who have not publicly commented since the collapse, discussed how closely the bridge's gusset plates should be analyzed as part of a study of the structure. Although an internal URS memo in 2005 stated that gusset plate buckling would not be catastrophic, a URS official told the Gray Plant Mooty investigators the comment was meant to be hypothetical. About the I-35W bridge, URS official Ed Zhou told the investigators that "we determined that it's not necessary for us to get into the level of details of reexamining the gusset plate if they were designed properly."
Finally, the report addressed a 2003 photo showing a bowed gusset plate on the bridge.
According to the report, one MnDOT safety inspection engineer said he remembered seeing the bowed gusset but concluded "that the bowing was attributable to original construction, rather than the result of stress on the gusset plate." But the report said that because MnDOT inspectors did not measure or record the finding, "there was no way to determine whether there was any change in this condition over time."
Mike Kaszuba • 612-673-4388