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At Issue: Report takes aim at MnDOT

Published (5/30/2008)
By Mike Cook
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While listening to testimony May 21, Rep. Ron Erhardt, a member of the Joint Committee to Investigate the Bridge Collapse, peers around five volumes of appendices to an investigation on the bridge collapse. (Photo by Tom Olmscheid)

A report questions some Department of Transportation actions before last summer’s collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge.

Representatives from the Minneapolis law firm of Gray Plant Mooty told the Joint Committee to Investigate the Bridge Collapse May 21 that MnDOT policies were not followed in critical respects. The firm was hired by the Legislature to take an independent look at factors leading to the collapse that killed 13 people, and recommend changes the department or elected officials should consider.

This report, according to a former transportation commissioner, should be viewed as symptomatic of an aging road and bridge infrastructure, not an isolated event, said Robert Stein, counsel at Gray Plant Mooty. The report is available here.

“We fully understand that MnDOT did not make its decisions, nor take actions, with the knowledge that the Bridge would collapse,” the report states. “Just the same, the Legislature wisely determined that we should identify what policy lessons could be learned from this tragedy.”

Rep. Bernie Lieder (DFL-Crookston), chairman of the House Transportation Finance Division, said the National Transportation Safety Board is expected to announce later this year its findings for the collapse of the 40-year-old bridge. However, preliminary indications have focused on a bowed gusset plate as a major factor. The weight of construction materials on the bridge may have also played a role.

Among concerns expressed are that MnDOT didn’t take sufficient corrective action to improve the bridge’s 17-year “poor” rating, nor did it document the bowed gusset plate.

Further, the information flow regarding the condition and safety of the bridge was informal and incomplete.

For example, an inspection engineer said he remembers seeing bowing in a plate, but couldn’t recall which plate or the year. Yet, according to the report, he concluded the “bowing was attributable to original construction, rather than the result of stress on a gusset plate.” His determination was not included in an inspection report. Another engineer interviewed said he would have included that in his report. Because the bowing was not measured nor recorded, there was no way to determine if it changed over time.

Investigators also determined that finances may have adversely influenced decision-making. “Funding considerations deferred work on the Bridge that would have improved its structural integrity, not just maintain its drivability,” the report states.

In 2004 and 2005, for example, the bridge was identified as a “Budget Buster,” a span needing costly renovation or replacement in the next decade. In April 2006, MnDOT began to discuss three bridge investment strategies, but rebuilding the bridge was eliminated, in part because the $75 million price tag was “cost prohibitive.” The other two options were: a scenario with a $3.5 million deck overlay in 2007, a deck replacement and steel strengthening between 2017 and 2022 for $15 million and replacing the bridge between 2057 and 2062 for more than $75 million. A second scenario involved patching the deck until 2012 at $15,000 a year, replacing the deck and strengthening the steel in 2012 for $15 million, and replacing the bridge in 2052 for more than $75 million. Additionally, a $40,000 radar summary to determine the integrity of the deck “was not completed due to funding,” according to a June 16, 2006, e-mail referenced in the report.

Other conclusions include that MnDOT did not conduct a loads rating analysis in response to the bridge’s deteriorating condition, and expert advice regarding the condition and safety of the bridge was not effectively utilized.

MnDOT Commissioner Tom Sorel, who started his position April 28, said the state’s bridges are “safe and sound,” that bridge safety is a top engineering and investment priority, and that the department is improving its policies on bridge design, maintenance and inspection. Sorel indicated he would have a formal department response in three or four weeks, after thoroughly reviewing the report.

“We’ve got some of the best people anywhere in the nation, and we want to help MnDOT build the best bridge program anywhere in the world,” said Sen. Steve Murphy (DFL-Red Wing), chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee. “A year from now we’re going to look back and say, ‘Why didn’t we do this before?’ We want a bridge program that we can hold up in front of the country and the rest of the world and say, ‘Try to match this. We dare you.’”

A series of recommendations was also given for procedural reform, including: a registered professional engineer should be among department leaders; the state should annually inspect all fracture-critical bridges; and the Legislature should create an emergency funding source for major bridge repair or replacement projects.

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