The effort to span the Mighty Mississippi with a bridge that won't fall down as fast as the last one is being accompanied by a full-bore public relations effort that will cost $550,000 or more and is supposed to help "rebuild faith" in MnDOT.

But rebuilding faith will take more than public relations. It ain't the spin, it's the span.

Charley McCrossan remembers the days when a good bridge spoke for itself and when trust in the highway department was based on the quality of its works, not its PR.

McCrossan, 82, is the patriarch of C.S. McCrossan Inc., one of the local firms that lost out in the competition to build the new Interstate 35W bridge. He believes the bridge spin is a smoke screen to cover the fact that the new bridge is costing far more than it might have.

A native of Duluth, McCrossan began his career shoveling coal on Great Lakes freighters, was part of the merchant marine in World War II, worked as a janitor at UMD, saw combat in Korea, returned home, married his wife, Helen, with whom he has nine children (five work in his company) and got his start in the construction business when a buddy asked him to help build a parking lot in Bloomington.

He started his company in 1956 and won his first highway contract in 1957, a $20,000 surfacing project on Hwy. 96. Today, C.S. McCrossan employs 500 or 600 people during the construction season, and Charley McCrossan has a lifetime achievement award from the Associated General Contractors of Minnesota. He is not a man to mince words.

"This is absolutely a waste of the taxpayers' money," McCrossan said about the public relations effort on behalf of the new 35W bridge. "If MnDOT wants to blow its own horn, then let their own people do it rather than shovel it into the bridge contract. If they need to rebuild trust, start with getting professionals to run MnDOT."

"People celebrate when they get federal funding" (the bridge got $250 million from the feds) "but they forget that for every dollar of Minnesota money that goes to Washington, 74 cents comes back. What is that to crow about? The money gets a haircut on the way back."

McCrossan was irked by a quote from John Himle, owner of Himle Horner Inc., that appeared in Sunday's Star Tribune. Himle's firm was hired by Flatiron Constructors, the Colorado-based company that won the bridge contract, to provide PR for the project. He dismissed complaints about the PR spin as nothing more than "sour grapes" from the losing bidders.

McCrossan shot back:

"The criticism was based on the hiring of Himle Horner to make taxpayers smile while being charged $57 million to eat a plate of inedible sour grapes served by MnDOT."

The grapes theme is getting stale, but McCrossan's point is clear. He and the other "losing" bidders on the bridge project believe MnDOT wasted a mountain of money -- $57 million more than the lowest bid -- to hire an out-of-state firm owned by a German company (Hochtief) because it gave too much importance to PR.

All the bridge bids, including McCrossan's, provided for public relations. That was a requirement of MnDOT. But in the old days, public works didn't need public relations. Now, government and politicians are obsessed by the need to "manage the message," and PR promotes the politicians while "selling" the work.

The fact that the bridge spin is managed by a firm with ties to Gov. Tim Pawlenty is troublesome to McCrossan.

"Every one of the bidders was going to build a good, safe bridge that MnDOT wanted," McCrossan said. "Ours was no better or worse than the others. But we could build the same bridge they are without $57 million going to Germany. They might as well take that $57 million and throw it on a burn pile. I never heard of this kind of thing in Minnesota. It's outrageous."

After 52 years of building roads in Minnesota and other states, McCrossan says he has lost something he never thought he'd lose: his pride in being a Minnesota road builder.

"When we work in these other states, I have always gone bragging up MnDOT. 'Those people are real professionals,' I always said. But now, this last six or eight years, this MnDOT department has gone all to hell.

"It's really dysfunctional."

"They didn't used to have to rely on public relations," added McCrossan's son, Tom, a vice president of McCrossan, Inc. "Fiftysome years, and they let the work speak for itself. It's only in the last few years they've had to restore the trust of the public in what they are doing.

"Why is that?"

Nick Coleman •