The National Transportation Safety Board is able to explain structural failures. It is not much good at explaining governmental ones.
The final report on the Interstate 35W bridge blames the collapse on an obscure bridge designer who, like 13 citizens trying to get home on Aug. 1, 2007, is dead. In effect, the NTSB adopted a conclusion reached days after the collapse by an outside consulting firm hired by Gov. Tim Pawlenty for $2 million -- the exact same cost as a plan to reinforce the bridge that had been rejected by the same administration: "The dead guys did it."
A very convenient theory. But there's one problem: Carol Molnau is still alive.
On the morning after the bridge collapse, I wrote here that "both political parties have tried to govern on the cheap" and both have scrimped "on the basics." Still true. But the buck stops with the man in the governor's chair, and during six years in office, Tim Pawlenty has stopped billions of bucks designated for crucial highway and bridge projects. He has vetoed three transportation bills, including one that passed over his veto while he was engaged in a yearlong beauty pageant, trying out for Miss GOP V-P, a role that went to Caribou Killin' Sarah Palin.
His complaints about being the target of premature and unfair criticism after the bridge fell should be viewed as the posturing of a guy who wants to be a standard bearer for the Republicans and needs to shake the mud off his feet.
Is it unfair to link the bridge to the infrastructure problems that have grown much larger during Pawlenty's tenure? Hardly.
Despite his post-Obama-slide conversion to a belief that Republicans need to reach out to moderates, T-Paw has embodied the knife-point anti-government agenda of those who think the best way to shrink government is to prove that it doesn't work. On Aug. 1, 2007, he may have felt the effort had gone a bridge too far.
"Premature?" How about unveiling plans for a new bridge while victims were in the river? How about hiring a firm supposed to investigate independently that ended up partnering with the NTSB and fingering the gussets (before the wreckage was examined)? Premature? A week after the collapse, Pawlenty declared it "unrelated" to any shortcomings in inspection or maintenance.
Fast work, T-Paw.
Reporters found differently: State officials had worried openly that the bridge might fail. Consultants had warned that it needed immediate maintenance. Molnau, Pawlenty's running mate, rejected plans to reinforce the bridge. Instead, MnDOT ordered a cosmetic fix, a repaving project that added about 300 tons to the bridge.
Follow the bouncing ball: MnDOT rejects a $2 million plan to reinforce a bridge that was deficient, fracture critical and the subject of fretting about a failure, in favor of a heavy repaving project.
More scrimping: The resurfacing went ahead without a precautionary use of ground-penetrating radar that would have shown whether subsurface deterioration had taken place since the last exam, eight years earlier.
Skipping radar saved $40,000
The radar would have cost $40,000. Instead, the state dragged a chain across the bridge, listening for thumps that might indicate problems. It would have been even cheaper to hire a dowser to check the bridge with a magic wand. And it would have worked just as well.
No Mere Mortal or Molnau could have kept the bridge from falling. Its doom was sealed at the dawn of time, predicted by Nostradamus, right after he got done inventing gusset plates.
Wow. I pity the fools who live in high-rises built before automatic sprinklers were required by building codes. Man, those people will die fiery deaths! Unless, somehow, you know, the state might require retrofitting? Nah. Too crazy.
Pawlenty has twisted himself like the bent gusset plate that was photographed and ignored. At first, he swore off the No Tax Moonshine, saying the state would do whatever it took to ensure safety. But after being blasted by neo-cons for losing his religion, he went back on the sauce: Just a month after the collapse, Pawlenty re-attached his name to a list of "leaders" against any new tax.
My point is: Choices were made in funding, inspecting, maintaining and repairing a bridge that yes, had a design flaw, but stood 40 years and never should have collapsed.
Never. Ever. Collapsed.
Yes, Tim Pawlenty has a bad case of Potomac Fever, but he is Minnesota's governor and he needs to stop complaining about unfair criticism and take Big Boy responsibility for a catastrophic failure that happened on his watch. He has not said what any governor must say:
"Minnesota, your government let you down. I am sorry. We did not do our job. There are no excuses."