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Bridge inquiry: Short on details, short on time

For all the hubbub surrounding whether the National Transportation Safety Board will hold a hearing on the 35W bridge collapse (and whether the whole investigation has been politicized), not much notice has been given to the other look at the disaster: the Legislature’s inquiry into what happened.

Both the House and Senate transportation leaders — Rep. Bernie Leider and Sen. Steve Murphy, respectively — formed the Joint Legislative Committee on the Interstate 35W bridge collapse. In December, the committee retained the law firm of Gray Plant Mooty to “consult” during a legislative investigation on the collapse. Today, representatives from the local law firm appeared before the committee at the Capitol.

Robert Stein introduced three other colleagues and then launched into a less-than-30-minute briefing that was as informative for what wasn’t said as much as for what was. In short, an investigation of this sort is time-consuming, and with an early May deadline in place, there isn’t much time left.

While the NTSB was investigating the technical aspects of the collapse, Stein emphasized, the charge of this investigation will be to look at the policies that may have played a role.

“This will be an independent — and I want to stress, independent — analysis of the policies, practices and decision-making specific to the 35W bridge,” he noted, in case any bias police were watching. “We will also cover the entire life of the bridge, and not just the last few years.”

Although the Minnesota Department of Transportation has gained a reputation for being bound by bureaucratic red tape before and after the collapse, Stein said the agency was cooperative. “MnDOT is generally responsive,” he said. “There are stresses and strains because of the time frame of the investigation.”

That investigation, according to Stein, has included 16,000 pages of documents, as well as 18 interviews with MnDOT staffers and 15 more with non-MnDOT sources. (Think former governors and former transportation commissioners “who served during the life of the bridge.”) There are 12 and 15 interviews, respectively, yet to come. (The interviews are conducted with a court reporter present, but are not under oath.)

Stein also said the original design of the bridge, which soon became obsolete after it was unveiled in 1940, will be looked at.

Stein noted that the recently released legislative auditor’s report was useful as far as spending and bridge budgets in recent years. But he also lamented that following the NTSB investigation is frustrating, with new twists and turns reported, and some docs not available until that investigation wraps up.

Still, with so much legwork to do, Stein revealed very little at this point: “It would be premature and counterproductive to suggest any findings.”

What, more than one lawmaker wanted to know, would be in the report, and would it be of any value, given the short timeframe?

“It’s daunting, I’d be less than honest if I didn’t say that,” Stein admitted, laughing uneasily. “But I’m confident it will contain useful information.”

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