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What is the legacy of the 35W bridge collapse on Minnesota politics and policy?

Minnesota took action in the months after the collapse. But exactly one decade later, St. Paul is back to gridlock on the infrastructure debate.

REUTERS/Eric Miller
An aerial view of the collapsed Interstate 35W bridge, in Minneapolis.

Just after 6 p.m. on Aug. 1, 2007, cars were crawling across the Interstate 35W bridge near downtown Minneapolis.

It wasn’t typical Wednesday evening rush hour traffic. Ongoing construction work meant heavy equipment was loaded right on the eight-lane bridge deck, slowing things down. Standing in the 90-degree heat, construction workers jackhammered through the roadway. As they crawled across the bridge, drivers could take in the sweeping views of the city’s old flour milling district and the Mississippi River below.

Then a moment later, the bridge suddenly buckled and crashed into the river, taking with it 111 vehicles and 13 human lives. It took more than a year for the National Transportation Safety Board to say definitively why it fell: A handful of half-inch thick steel gusset plates weren’t quite thick enough to handle design changes made over the years and the unusual amount of weight sitting on the bridge that day.

But in the days and weeks following the collapse, news of the dead and images of twisted steel beams and cars submerged in black water invigorated the public and politicians. President George W. Bush visited the site and promised to cut through red tape to rebuild the bridge, and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty called for an inspection of bridges across the state. Standing next to the wreckage, Minnesota U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar made a simple but powerful statement: “A bridge in America shouldn’t just fall down.”

REUTERS/Eric Miller
In an Aug. 2, 2007, photo, vehicles lie amid the rubble of the Interstate 35W bridge.

In St. Paul, the collapse had an immediate effect on Minnesota’s debate on infrastructure funding, which had stalled just months earlier during the legislative session over the politically fraught question of whether to raise gas taxes to pay for road and bridge repairs. The collapse would jumpstart the debate over the gas tax, leading to a historic veto override vote and billions more spent on the state’s network of bridges. The tragedy would also fundamentally change the state’s system for inspecting and building bridges.

But exactly one decade later, St. Paul is back to gridlock on the infrastructure debate. So what, if anything, is the legacy of the bridge collapse on Minnesota politics and policy?

“Even with a bridge falling down, it wasn’t easy. It fired up a few people to take a huge risks,” Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, said. “Now [transportation] has become the ideological battle.”

Lawmakers ‘had this immediate reaction’

Like many Minnesotans, Margaret Anderson Kelliher remembers exactly where she was when the bridge fell.

The Democratic Speaker of the Minnesota House at the time was in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, at the groundbreaking for a food shelf when she saw the local sheriff whisper something in a fellow lawmaker’s ear. Her colleague’s face dropped. Kelliher jumped in a car and went right to Minneapolis City Hall, where an operations center had been set up to respond to the collapse. Much later in the evening, she went to tour the wreckage with other state officials.

REUTERS/Scott Cohen
In an Aug. 2, 2007, photo, concrete, iron work, and crushed vehicles lie on the collapsed surface of the I-35W bridge.

“That was pretty graphic,” Kelliher said, holding back tears. “We all just kind of had this immediate reaction of — we were going to do whatever we needed to do.”

Three days after the bridge collapse, Congress authorized about $250 million to rebuild the bridge, and the Minnesota Department of Transportation issued a request for qualifications for the contract. By early November, construction had already begun. The Minnesota Legislature also quickly established a Joint Committee to Investigate the Bridge Collapse, which was made up of members from both chambers and parties. The committee was charged with conducting a comprehensive review of decisions made by the Minnesota Department of Transportation pertinent to the collapse.

But the ultimate goal for Kelliher and other Democratic leaders was to pay for road and bridge projects by raising the state’s gas tax, which sat at 20 cents per gallon since 1988. At the time, estimates said the state needed a staggering $2 billion per year just to maintain and repair its rapidly crumbling network of highways and aging bridges.

In May 2007, the DFL-controlled House and Senate voted to increase the gas tax by 5 cents and pass a $1.5 billion package in bonding for infrastructure. But the bill was vetoed by Pawlenty, a staunch opponent of tax increases, who called it an “unnecessary and onerous burden on Minnesotans that would weaken [the] state’s economy.” A subsequent attempt to override Pawlenty’s veto failed by seven votes in the House.

In the immediate aftermath of the collapse, Pawlenty’s tone softened on the gas tax, suggesting he could be open to raising it. But six months after the bridge collapse, when the 2008 session got under way, it was clear that Pawlenty preferred a large borrowing package to pay for bridge repairs over tax increases. “That was the signal to me that I had my work cut out for me,” Kelliher said.

Lobbying and the ‘override six’

Kelliher wanted to pass the bill early in 2008 to set the tone of the session, so she and other key legislators went to work adjusting the package and talking to moderate Republicans, those who had shown openness to bucking their party to override the governor’s veto. She also won over the support of a critical ally: the state’s largest business group, the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, which joined hands with labor unions to increase funding.

By February, the package was ready for a vote. Under the bill, the gas tax would climb 5 cents per gallon, including an additional, temporary 3.5 cents more to pay back $1 billion in borrowing. It also included a metrowide sales tax increase of a quarter percent. But the key element was for bridges: The proposal set out a 10-year plan to put more than $2 billion into fixing and inspecting state bridges, including all "fracture-critical" bridges, or those built in a way that they are susceptible to collapse if a single key component fails, like the 35W bridge.

REUTERS/Tony Webster via You Witness News
Emergency personnel look over the scene at the collapsed I-35W bridge in Minneapolis on Aug. 1, 2007.

As expected, the proposal passed the DFL controlled House and Senate with some Republican support. But Pawlenty vetoed the bill — also as expected — and Democrats were making a second attempt to override him. The Senate Democrats had enough votes to override the veto on their own, so all eyes turned to the House.

It wasn’t a hard decision for Jim Abeler, then a Republican House representative from Anoka, to vote in favor of the bill the first time. But overriding the Republican governor was a more complicated decision, knowing most of his party wouldn’t be behind him.

“The question became, should I override and do I have the courage to override, knowing what I was up against,” Abeler said. At a meeting with community members before the vote, he did an informal poll of the room and asked them if they would override the veto. All of the about 30 people gathered there that day raised their hands, Abeler said.

Courtesy of MnDOT
MnDOT workers placing the last segment of the new bridge in place during the summer of 2008.

In the end, he and five other House Republicans voted with all other Democrats to override the veto. They became known as the “override six” and were stripped of their leadership positions. All but one lost their local Republican endorsements, and only two survived their races for re-election.

“I just voted because I believed it was the right thing to do,” Abeler, who is now a Republican state senator, said. “It’s caused me nothing but heartburn ever since on the Republican side and nothing but accolades from people living in the middle.”

After the vote, cheers erupted in the House gallery and outside of the chamber, but Kelliher quietly moved on to other items on the floor that day. “We were doing something quite serious,” she said. “I never think someone should be gleeful about raising someone’s taxes.”

Collapse legacy: safer bridges

One decade later, the funding package has had a lasting impact on the state’s network of bridges, not to mention how officials inspect and build new bridges.

The bill directed the state to inspect and repair a total of 172 older bridges over 10 years that had been flagged as in need of repairs or replacement across the state. That program will expire in June of 2018, with an estimated 120 bridges under contract to be replaced or rehabilitated by then. About 35 bridges were only determined to need routine maintenance, said Nancy Daubenberger, MnDOT’s engineering services director, who spent years working on the state’s bridge program.

Courtesy of MnDOT
Workers labored around the clock to complete the bridge ahead of schedule.

The program involved several major bridge replacements, including a new bridge in St. Cloud, where the former DeSoto Bridge was discovered to have a similar design to the 35W bridge.

“When the 35W bridge collapsed in Minnesota, there was heightened awareness of our older infrastructure and the investment needed,” she said. “A lot of states have now looked more closely at their aging bridge infrastructure.”

Daubenberger said the state has also made a lot of changes in the way it manages its bridges, including requiring a peer review of any new complex bridge design and gusset plate adequacy analysis, the cause of the 35W bridge collapse. Bridges are now regularly inspected across the state. 

“We absolutely have safer bridges and Minnesotans are safer on the roads because of the bill that passed,” Kelliher said, looking back. But she acknowledges that — even then — she knew the funding wasn't going to hold up forever.

“Was it enough to keep fixing our roads and bridges into the future? Probably not,” she said. “It was probably a 10 or 12-year bill and we are coming to the time where our needs are not going to keep up.” 

In St. Paul, legacy has ‘run its course’

One decade later, the transportation and infrastructure debate is back in front of lawmakers, and in some ways, it’s more polarized than ever. There are more than 13,000 bridges in Minnesota, and transportation funding advocates say the 2008 gas tax increase hasn’t kept up with the needs for both roads and other bridges that are only now starting to show signs of deterioration.

Lawmakers are debating again whether to raise the state’s gas tax, but the roles are reversed this time. Gov. Mark Dayton, a Democrat, is leading the charge on a gas tax increase, but he is running into pushback from Republican leaders in control of the Legislature, who point to recent budget surpluses as a sign that the state of Minnesota is already collecting enough taxes from its residents.

MinnPost file photo by Raoul Benavides
A procession of state troopers and highway trucks led the re-opening of the new I-35W bridge at 5:00 a.m., Thursday, Sept. 18, 2008.

What’s more, the transportation argument has become more complicated than just whether to raise taxes. It’s now shifted to roads and bridges in rural areas versus light rail transit projects in the metro. It’s an ideological divide that’s so deep, it prevented a transportation or a package of construction projects from passing in both 2015 and 2016. Dramatically, in the final minutes of the 2016 legislative session, a package of construction projects and funding set aside for roads and bridges failed over whether an amendment should be tacked on to also fund light rail projects.

But this legislative session, Republicans said they made “enormous strides,” passing a $300 million transportation funding bill using money from a state surplus, as well as a $1 billion package of infrastructure projects that included road and bridge repairs. 

“I think that this last year we made some of the biggest strides that we made in the last 10 years regarding infrastructure, particularly regarding roads and bridges,” Rep. Dean Urdahl, the chair of the House Capital Investment Committee, said. Together, the transportation and bonding bill included 97 bridge projects, Urdahl said, and he’s expecting a “substantial” bonding bill to be up for debate again next session.

In retrospect, Republican Sen. Dave Senjem, who chairs the upper chamber’s Capital Investment Committee, notes that it was a design flaw — not an aging bridge — that triggered the state’s biggest investment in roads and bridges in nearly 30 years. But it was a “wakeup call” that lawmakers needed.

“We don't want that to happen again and I don't think it will,” Senjem said. “We’ve stepped up but we have to continue to do that.”

Hausman disagrees that the last few sessions have shown any progress, and said the one-time funding passed last session will quickly dry up. She’s frustrated that Republicans are so ideologically opposed to transit funding and raising the gas tax, even as other states are making big investments in their transit and transportation networks.

“The message from Republicans is that Minnesotans just want roads and bridges — it’s absolutely wrong. There’s such a disconnect from the Legislature and what I'm hearing around the state,” Hausman said. “There are number of states, including states with Republicans in charge, that raised the gas tax recently. There is just something different happening in this state right now.”

For Abeler, if he were asked to vote on a gas tax increase today, he would vote no, and it’s not just politicians who’ve lost the appetite for such tax increases. If he were to ask a room of 30 people living in his district whether to raise the gas tax — like he did a decade ago — he thinks only three people would raise their hand now.

“The legacy has kind of run its course,” Abeler said. “All of the deficient bridges are taken care of and the memory of the collapse has faded with time. The time was right then for people to vote for a gas tax.”