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NTSB’s findings on bridge collapse have political consequences

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released its preliminary findings today (PDF) on the likely cause of the I-35W bridge collapse, and the report has some immediate political consequences.

The likely culprits in the Aug. 1 collapse were faulty steel plates that held together the bridge’s beams, the NTSB said. A final report won’t be finished until this fall, but the indication that it was a design flaw (PDF), not bad upkeep, has political implications. If the bridge was poorly designed, not poorly maintained, some pressure comes off of Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s administration to account for the collapse. That, in turn, could take the air out of renewed DFL efforts to raise the gas tax during this year’s legislative session.

Some DFLers have tied the bridge collapse to Pawlenty’s veto of a transportation and gas-tax bill last year. But the governor said today that the report helps separate transportation funding from the bridge issue.

“It shifts the debate where it should be, which is: have that debate about those needs, do it in a respectful, factual manner, and quit exploiting the bridge tragedy to advance their political agenda,” Pawlenty said.

“I would hope people would at least have the decency to correct their statements,” he said of those who said his veto helped bring down the bridge.

‘Serious design error’
NTSB Chairman Mark Rosenker told reporters that gusset plates about the size of a small sidewalk square may have been too thin to keep the bridge together. The plates near where the bridge first broke apart were half an inch thick, half the thickness of some other plates. Sixteen of the half-inch plates, at eight spots on the bridge, broke apart, while all others remained relatively intact.

Rosenker called the plate thickness a “serious design error,” but said the original calculations used in designing the bridge, which opened in 1967, could not be found. “We cannot determine whether the error was a calculation error, a drafting error or some other error in the design process,” he said.

“What caused the failure is yet to be determined,” Rosenker said, noting carefully that the plates show how the bridge fell, but may not fully explain why. Repairs in 1977 and 1998 had thickened its concrete bed by 2 inches, to 8.5 inches, and the bridge was being repaved when it collapsed. The final report will reveal what Rosenker called “the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

DFLers suggested that bad maintenance still could be a culprit if poorly maintained expansion joints led to increased pressure on the gusset plates.

Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, a DFLer, issued a statement today saying the bridge collapse “was not an act of God, but a failure of Man. Our state and country have not invested as we must in roads, bridges and transit — and that lack of investment has serious consequences.”

Bridge cost $400 million
The news comes on the heels of Pawlenty’s Monday announcement of a $965 million public works bond package, with $225 million of that amount dedicated to bridge repair statewide.

The DFL says the state ought to raise the gas tax, not more bond debt, for road repairs. Last year, DFLers pushed through a 5-cent increase in the 20-cent-per gallon gas tax that Pawlenty ultimately vetoed. Now that DFL Rep. Jim Oberstar chairs the U.S. House Transportation Committee, he has argued that Minnesota stands to reap a federal transportation spending windfall if the state could pony up dollars for the feds to match.

The gas tax generates more than $600 million a year for Minnesota, of which about $135 million gets matched by federal dollars, according to congressional sources. An increase would raise the amount that Congress could match.

In December, Congress included $195 million in emergency funding for the I-35W bridge repair in its year-end spending package, bringing total federal funding to $373 million.

Pawlenty said the bridge would ultimately cost about $400 million, and predicted it would be open by the end of the year. Construction of the fallen bridge took about three years to complete.

The $225 million in bonds would be designed to replace about 600 bridges, about a third of the reported 1,800 deficient bridges in Minnesota.

The news also comes atop the release of a report today calling for a federal gas tax boost of up to 40 cents per gallon. Given rising gas prices — already a presidential campaign issue — and increasing talk of recession, an attempt to boost the tax this year at any level will be politically challenging, to say the least.

Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Bruce Kvam on 01/15/2008 - 04:24 pm.

    Calling the bridge collapse a “design flaw” is, bluntly speaking, a lie. The bridge was not designed to support the traffic volume it eventually came to have. The design limits were further exceeded by the addition of hundreds of tons of construction materials.

    The large traffic volume and construction project were conscious decisions made by the Pawlenty administration, and were not some random act of God. Members of MnDOT knew the bridge’s design limits had been exceeded long ago and that the bridge was badly corroded. They were discussing engineering solutions to fix the problems.

    The NTSB’s announcement is blatant political cover for Tim Pawlenty.

  2. Submitted by Everett Flynn on 01/17/2008 - 10:43 am.

    Thanks for calling a spade a spade, Bruce. I would add an observation. I was amazed that the Federal Transportation Dept. held a press conference and made such a highly publicized announcement about…. well, about nothing, essentially. The announced that the gusset plates might have had something to do with the catastrophic failure, but that they wouldn’t be able to announce anything definitively until the investigation was complete. Now how fascinating was that?

    Within days of the bridge failure, the gusset plates were implicated as being a significant part of the story. Also implicated were factors of increased weight on the bridge deck through various improvements over the years (concrete barrier dividing north and south bound traffic, additional rails, additional thickness to the road surface itself, etc.), AND, significantly, corrosion and wear to steel and other elements of the superstructure and the bearing assemblies. We were also told within days of the bridge failure that inspections of these factors had been increased over recent years and that repair options had recently been considered. Gusset plates were included in these discussions and, were we not informed that specific gusset plates had been identified for frequent observation?

    Why, therefore, was it news worthy of a press conference, that the investigation, incomplete of course, suspects that gusset plates might be involved in the failure? And why is the mainstream media lapping that up like so many Pavlovian dogs? It was propaganda theater, much like we, sadly, have become accustomed to seeing from the Bush administration. It was offered simply to assist a particular political party provide cover for whatever level of culpability is appropriate, given their significant role in depriving our state transportation dept. of sufficient funds over the most recent period of time for things like road and bridge maintenance, inspection and repair.

    The mainstream media needs to be prodded to examine more critically what’s being fed by the propaganda machines of Bush and Pawlenty. Further, the mainstream media needs to avoid the reflexive impulse NOT to blame people and agencies who are legitimately worthy of blame. Holding people and agencies accountable when they deserve it has nothing to do with bias or being “liberal.” Rather, it’s the public trust that rests with the media — to be critical and unafraid to hold up people in power to appropriate scorn and to demand accountability.

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