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Policy decisions main subject of bridge probe

  • Article by: MIKE KASZUBA
  • Star Tribune
  • April 9, 2008 - 9:57 PM

A law firm hired by legislators to investigate the Interstate 35W bridge collapse said Wednesday that its probe is examining whether weight added to the bridge over time might have jeopardized its safety and is looking at what state officials learned from the buckling of a similar bridge in Ohio a decade ago.

The firm, Gray Plant Mooty, whose hiring was seen by Republican critics as duplicating the federal investigation of the collapse, said it had interviewed state transportation officials and former governors and had been in contact with URS Inc., the state's consultant on the bridge.

But Robert Stein of Gray Plant Mooty said it was premature to draw conclusions before a formal report is released next month and gave legislators few specifics. Appearing before a joint legislative committee, Stein was asked by Rep. Neil Peterson, R-Bloomington, whether "we need to temper our expectations" given the relatively short six-month investigation and technical delays in obtaining e-mails and other documents from the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT).

Stein said the findings would prove useful but were not meant to identify what caused the collapse or duplicate the official investigation being led by the National Transportation Safety Board.

"It's daunting," Stein said of the firm's task. That task, he said, is to find what, if any, state policy choices might have contributed to the collapse and make sure they are changed.

Stein said the firm, whose hiring in December was pushed by DFLers critical of MnDOT and Gov. Tim Pawlenty's handling of the investigation, was studying the bridge's long history, starting with a look at whether its design was outdated shortly after it was built. He said the firm was also trying to determine whether large costs associated with the bridge's replacement and repairs may have at least indirectly influenced decisions that had an impact on its safety. "I think that this is a major issue," he said.

Another question the probe is examining, he said, is how MnDOT analyzed the weight that was added to the bridge during several reconstruction projects.

Stein said the findings also would look at what information concerning the bridge "flowed to the governor" and legislators before the collapse, and how MnDOT officials reacted to the failure of gusset plates on an Ohio bridge in 1996. "What was done there, and what was learned here," said Stein. Gusset plate failure has been listed by federal investigators as a possible cause of the I35W collapse.

The interstate bridge near Cleveland buckled, causing a 3-inch downward and 3-inch lateral displacement on both trusses on the eastbound lanes. Experts who studied that buckling said they had been contacted by the NTSB after the I-35W collapse.

Sen. Kathy Saltzman, DFL-Woodbury, one of MnDOT's chief legislative critics, cautioned legislators and the law firm not to fall victim to the issues that might be affecting the federal investigation, such as "a sense of a deadline and perhaps a rush to judgment."

Mike Kaszuba • 612-673-4388

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