Six weeks ago, four lawyers from Gray Plant Mooty told a joint committee of lawmakers in St. Paul that they would be hard pressed to finish an investigation into the 35W bridge collapse by a May deadline. But today in Room 123 of the Capitol, they painted a grim portrait of what went wrong on the bureaucratic side that may have factored into the Aug. 1 disaster.
They came heavily armed with information and spoke and answered questions for more than three hours. Legislators were presented with a report (PDF) and various appendices that, when stacked, went more than a foot high. The conclusion in effect: MnDOT is an agency that, despite having talented, hardworking staffers, is in peril structurally, financially and spiritually.
“The mission was often unclear or at least inconsistent,” Robert Stein told the bipartisan, bicameral Joint Committee to Investigate the I-35W Bridge Collapse. “There was a lack of clarity [regarding the bridge] exacerbated by funding difficulty and how to repair it.”
Morale is low at the agency, according to Kathryn Bergstrom, who interviewed many of MnDOT’s employees. “They feel somewhat gutted administratively,” she said.
“Financial considerations, we believe, did influence decision-making,” Stein offered at one point.
The Minneapolis firm conceived of the investigation in September but really started in earnest after the first of the year. Lawyers reviewed 24,000 records and conducted 47 interviews, including ones with the state’s surviving governors (Jesse Ventura excepted) and transportation commissioners who served since the bridge opened in 1967 and MnDOT’s creation in 1976.
Setting a somber mood, the lawyers took great pains to make their findings as apolitical as possible, noting that their interviews took them across party lines. They emphasized that they were not explaining any technical reasons why the bridge actually collapsed.
That word would come from the National Transportation Safety Board investigation. Instead, this investigation, as noted in the introduction, focuses on MnDOT “to see if there were any policies or practices that needed to be changed to reduce the possibility of another bridge collapse.”
A host of problems
Turns out there are several questionable policies and practices, among them:
• MnDOT policies were not followed in critical respects.
• Decision-making responsibility was diffuse and unclear.
• Financial considerations may have adversely affected decision-making.
• Expert advice was not used effectively.
• MnDOT did not follow its own policies with respect to reporting the deteriorating condition of the bridge and did not document inspection report findings
• MnDOT did not sufficiently consider the impact of the 2007 construction activities.
What’s more, MnDOT did not document the photo of the now infamous “bowed” gusset plate that drew so much attention when the Star Tribune published a 2003 photo earlier this spring. Inspectors didn’t find it significant — which, truth be told, it may not be.
In fact, inspectors didn’t document much at all; the investigation revealed, somewhat unbelievably, that “MnDOT operates largely as an oral culture,” according to the report. This is compounded by fact that MnDOT has a “Central Bridge” office in Oakdale, but the 35W bridge also was located in the “Metro District”—it wasn’t entirely clear who knew what about the bridge, who told whom, and who was supposed to do something about it.
In fact, since 1990, inspectors knew the bridge was in trouble. That year, it was given a four on a scale of zero to nine, down from seven the year before. That means the “superstructure” — the part of the bridge above water except the deck — went from being “good” to “poor,” according National Bridge Inspection Standards.
Therefore, for 17 years, MnDOT officials and staffers knew of the many problems affecting the bridge, yet never got on the same page about what to do about it.
“The bridge’s file was in no one place. The bridge’s file was incomplete,” Bergstrom said, adding that much construction on the bridge over the years was inadequate, to say the least. “From the memos we found, the work being done … wouldn’t help the superstructure at all.”
More than that, the lawyers found that MnDOT, in the words of Stein, “has been downsizing since 2000,” and has lost about 19 percent of administrators and engineers in recent years.
Still, they stopped short of criticizing the Pawlenty administration, thought the report does make one rather strong point: “The two former Governors interviewed who served after the Department of Transportation was established in 1976 and all former Commissioners of Transportation (prior to Lieutenant Governor Molnau) unanimously agreed it is inappropriate for a statewide elected official to serve as Commissioner of Transportation.”
Reasons given were in “varying but consistent language”:
• Would cause the professional staff to hunker down and be reluctant to express professional judgment at variance with the political position.
• Would send the wrong message to MnDOT professional staff.
• Would inhibit MnDOT staff in the exercise of their professional judgment, out of the concern for their careers if they were to speak out.