Nancy Barnes: On the driving public's right to know

  • Article by: Nancy Barnes
  • Star Tribune
  • December 15, 2007 - 8:05 PM

Amid these cold, snowy days that mark the advent of the holiday season, the screams and sirens that accompanied the collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge have receded into memory for many residents of this state. Most of us were not personally affected by the horror, and as it fades, we have adjusted our driving routes and gone about our business. Life always does go on, no matter how horrific the tragedy.

This was not a natural disaster, however, but a manmade one. And for that reason, it should have lasting ramifications for everyone who drives a car on the streets and bridges of Minnesota. The collapse of the bridge snatched away lives literally in transit. Until that day in August, we all thought it was safe to drive across a bridge. Why wouldn't we?

Now we have come to understand, too clearly, the term "fracture critical"; one fatal flaw in certain bridges, and the whole thing can come tumbling down. The I-35W bridge had been marked repeatedly for repairs that were repeatedly delayed. Was it a fluke that it fell, or a sign that the roads may not be as safe as we think? This is more than just a boring public policy question: It should be a matter of intense public interest.

For the past several months, reporters have been digging into these questions. They have pushed, with the help of our lawyers, for access to information about the conditions of our roads and bridges, the money spent to maintain them and the safety records and inspections.

On more than one occasion they have irritated a few people who work for the Minnesota Department of Transportation, trying to get that information. We were not alone. Lawyers for the victims, as well as state legislators, have questioned why it was so hard to get information about the I-35W bridge and other problem roadways from our public officials. Rep. Joe Atkins, a DFLer, threatened a subpoena if the House Commerce and Labor Committee didn't get information it had requested for months about the replacement of the Wakota Bridge, now three years behind schedule and $20 million over budget.

At one point, the transportation department admitted to reporters Tony Kennedy and Paul McEnroe that it had made a strategic decision not to respond to any interviews we requested, except in writing. And so, week after week, the reporters dutifully submitted their questions and waited for answers. Sometimes, they waited a long time. At another point, reporters had asked about repairs to the Hastings Bridge, the subject of today's front-page story. The department handed them a nonspecific maintenance sheet that noted the numbers of hours maintenance workers had spent on particular parts of the bridge. Not until the reporters asked about specific defects found in inspections did they learn that the repairs had not been made. The department has also declined to release the latest inspection report of the bridge, citing the potential of terrorist attacks. Every other inspection of the Hastings Bridge since September 11, 2001, has been public.

In the end, after many months of legwork and persistence, our reporters got most of the information they needed and one department official eventually had the courage to come in and talk to reporters in person. Thank you to Bob McFarlin, the assistant to Commissioner Carol Molnau. Molnau declined to be interviewed by reporters.

Let me be clear. This battle for information is not about reporters vs. the transportation department or vs. one administration or another. We have insisted on getting this information because, very simply, we believe that the driving public has the right to know if they are safe when they cross a bridge in Minnesota or travel a road built 50 years ago.

It's about living in a free society, in which the government we support through taxes owes us an obligation to be transparent with information about such critical issues as safe roads and bridges. At times, said Kennedy, it appeared that the department was "more worried about managing its reputation than they were about managing the problem."

You can read about our findings, starting today, in a series of stories that examines the tradeoffs the state makes every day, every year, in determining whether a transportation route is safe. Some fixes are delayed, literally for more than a decade, in the constant juggle for money. These decisions directly affect the quality of driving, and the quality of living, along some of these roads.

This series is not an attempt to point fingers at any political party. The reporting shows that the decisions to delay repairs to many of our most dangerous roads and bridges have been handed down from one administration to the next, DFL and Republican alike. A fix that could be delayed was passed along to another day, perhaps another administration and another team of engineers.

"People are dying," McEnroe said, "because of indecisions."

© 2018 Star Tribune