State seeks second opinion on bridge collapse

  • Article by: Mike Kaszuba
  • Star Tribune
  • September 15, 2007 - 11:34 AM

Even though federal officials have promised to find out why the Interstate 35W bridge collapsed, Minnesota will spend nearly $2 million over the next two years on a separate investigation, documents released Friday show.

State officials have made public a contract with Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates (WJE), a Chicago firm, that took effect Aug. 1 -- the day of the bridge's collapse -- and a project manager for the company said he arrived on the scene mere hours after the accident. According to the two-year contract, the company is examining parts of the bridge to "characterize initial defects," doing calculations "to determine the source of the bridge instability" and performing a host of other duties.

The contract's release comes as the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is continuing the federal government's official investigation of the collapse. But state officials dismissed concerns that the Minnesota Department of Transportation's decision to hire WJE was simply duplicating the federal probe.

While NTSB spokesman Terry Williams said it was not unusual "for parties to our investigation to contract for technical assistance," he acknowledged Friday that "we do not usually see regulatory agencies contract for such technical assistance." However, Williams said that federal investigators were "working cooperatively" with WJE.

"The NTSB has control of the site," said Michael Koob, the project manager for WJE, who added that roughly a half-dozen company employees have been at the bridge collapse site daily. "It's a sharing of factual information."

So far, neither the NTSB nor WJE has concluded what caused the collapse, and federal investigators have indicated it may take many months to determine it.

But the company's parallel investigation was almost immediately thrust into the spotlight when the New York Times reported that the firm had discovered a potential flaw in the bridge's gusset plates, a series of steel connectors on the 1960s-era structure. Though the NTSB said the gusset plates were just one of many issues being reviewed, the disclosure led U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters to issue a national alert regarding the gussets and the impact of the weight of equipment and materials on bridges undergoing reconstruction.

At the time of the collapse, which left 13 dead, the bridge was undergoing a $9 million resurfacing project.

'Two pairs of eyes'

In hiring WJE, MnDOT spokesperson Chris Joyce said the agency was responding to Gov. Tim Pawlenty's early desire to have the state conduct a parallel investigation. The governor's office said Friday that the move was akin to "the philosophy that two pairs of eyes are better than one."

Pawlenty's spokesman, Brian McClung, said the move to make sure "absolutely nothing is missed." Another reason, he said, was to have a third-party review because "sometimes people are skeptical of government."

WJE, according to the company, specializes in rapid-response analysis of structural failures and natural disasters.

But Richard Walther, a marketing manager for WJE, and other company officials said they were unaware of the details surrounding the company's quick selection by state officials, who chose WJE without seeking bids from competitors.

Transportation consultant Barry Sweedler, who ran NTSB investigations during a 30-year career there, told the Associated Press that he'd rely more on the NTSB's report.

"I always look at who hires these supposed independent investigators," he said. "They both have access to all the facts. The question is how these facts are analyzed. How free will they be to really criticize the people who are paying them?"

State officials, according to the contract, said they hired the company because they were "in need of investigation services to determine the cause of the collapse and oversight services for the removal and demolition of the structural components of the bridge."

WJE, the contract states, should "avoid duplication to the extent practical" with work being performed by other government agencies.

Under the contract, 37 percent of WJE's duties will consist of assisting with "removal and storage operations." The company will bill the state $210 an hour for its senior consultants and up to $275 an hour for structural engineers.

"We are known throughout the country as a go-to firm," said Walther.

Mike Kaszuba • 612-673-4388

Mike Kaszuba •

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