August 3, 2007

Doesn't Sound Like A Funding Issue

MnDOT officials had concerns about the I-35W bridge over the Mississippi River last winter, focusing on the same fatigue and potential cracking that has grabbed the focus of the post-collapse coverage. Engineers debated whether to apply patches to the more worrisome points of fatigue, but in the end, opted to continue inspections instead:

Structural deficiencies in the Interstate 35W bridge that collapsed Wednesday were so serious that the Minnesota Department of Transportation last winter considered bolting steel plates to its supports to prevent cracking in fatigued metal, according to documents and interviews with agency officials.

The department went so far as to ask contractors for advice on the best way to approach such a task, which could have been opened for bids later this year.

MnDOT considered the steel plating at the recommendation of consulting engineers who told the agency that there were two ways to keep the bridge safe: Make repairs throughout the 40-year-old steel arched bridge or inspect it closely enough to find flaws that might become cracks and then bolt the steel plating only on those sections.

Fears about bridge safety fueled emotional debate within the agency, according to a construction industry source. But on the I-35W bridge, transportation officials opted against making the repairs.

Officials were concerned that drilling thousands of tiny bolt holes would weaken the bridge. Instead, MnDOT launched an inspection that was interrupted this summer by unrelated work on the bridge's concrete driving surface.

In the rush to point fingers, we have heard from experts on local and national television about the neglect of our infrastructure. Our local crank at the Strib decided to write a column blaming everyone from Tim Pawlenty to David Strom for killing the victims of the collapse. Instead, it looks like the engineers at MnDOT simply decided that the bridge did not appear to have sufficient problems for immediate intervention.

That was not a question of money. MnDOT officials, according to the Strib, acknowledged that they had the money in the budget to pay for the suggested repairs. In fact, MnDOT was the agency that made the determination that the I-35W bridge would not need an overhaul or replacement until 2020. Those recommendations were forwarded to the state government, which didn't have any reason to reject the evaluations supplied by the MnDOT engineers.

This could explain why Pawlenty has decided to outsource the new bridge inspections. He announced yesterday that all Minnesota bridges would undergo an extra and immediate round of inspections. At the same time, he also announced that the state had hired a consultant firm to review the inspection process and to conduct inspections themselves.

Some still insist that it must have been all about money, but MnDOT itself insists that was not the issue. They did not want to risk the bridge structure by drilling the necessary holes in the girders that would have allowed them to rivet repair plates in place. They felt the situation was not critical and that the repair could have made the structure even more unstable.

It doesn't appear that money or neglect played a part in this collapse. It looks instead that MnDOT either didn't evaluate the bridge properly, or that the fatigue it noted didn't have anything to do with the collapse.


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» Minnesota Had Money Available For Bridge Repairs from Blue Crab Boulevard
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Comments (31)

Posted by Barnestormer | August 3, 2007 7:49 AM

"All," or those of similar design?

Posted by J. Gocht | August 3, 2007 7:55 AM

Captain, if only you could be as forthcoming and factual as Nick Coleman...

Olde soldier sends...

Posted by Immolate | August 3, 2007 8:08 AM


Hanging your hat on Nick Coleman of the Strib is the intellectual equivalent of allying with Cindy Sheehan or becomeing a truther.

Free logic lesson: being forthcoming is to accept responsibility, not assign it.

Posted by Wise Ol Bird | August 3, 2007 8:19 AM

The inspection was probably outsourced because the state wouldn't have a suffiecent number of inspectors to get this sort of rush job done in a timely manor.

The failure may have been caused by something the previous inspection missed or did not properly identify. However, it is also possible that the cause happened after the last inspection.

Time will tell

Posted by Randy | August 3, 2007 9:14 AM

Just move along, nothing to see here. Infrastructure crumbling before our eyes? Why would that have anything to do with money? Go back to watching American Idol. Our roads and bridges are all perfectly safe and our money is much better spent on killing each and every terrorist in Iraq.

Posted by Douglas Cole | August 3, 2007 9:25 AM

I have seen the underside of that bridge and it had big pieces of concrete missing exposing missing bolts and badly corroded steel. You don't have to have to be an expert to think it had big problems.

The governor is the person responsible for the poor decision makers, the Bridge Engineers.

Posted by Loren | August 3, 2007 9:27 AM


ALL with priority to the bridges of similar design (3 IIRC) and then those with poor ratings. Priority for inspections to be from worst to best..


You can watch American Idol if you want. No need to worry about terrorists who hate American Idol, Americans and freedom. Terrorists who believe their ticket to paradise is killing us. Just stick your head in the TV and don't worry. It's all the evil BusHitler-Halliburtons fault !

Posted by patrick neid | August 3, 2007 9:30 AM

oh god, the sky is falling.

the lou dobbs' of the world running around telling us how terrible the US is, especially the bush admin.

look a bridge collapsed. horrible yes but these things happen, thankfully very rarely. planes crash and buildings fall down unexpectedly. good grief its not a refection on our society.

instead we should be on our knees thanking the good lord for so few deaths and injuries. the last thing we need is pundits, politicians, etc hyperventilating about larger issues connected to the transcendental nature of a bridge collapse. jeez, if i wanted that i would re-read thorton wilder's " the bridge of san luis rey".

the money has been there for decades to replace our entire road system. the politicians et al now haranguing the populace are the same losers that spent the money on other things. all this shrieking is now the prequel to demanding more taxes for things they taxed us already for.

the real entertainment is coming watching state officials pad every new bridge with earmarks and cost over runs.

Posted by philw | August 3, 2007 9:42 AM

Infrastructure maintenance does not get funded because there are no new ground breaking photo ops for pols. Plus 'progressives' would rather spend the money on new social program entitlements as a sop to their base. You won't win an election doing the hard grunt work of infrastructure.

Posted by doc | August 3, 2007 10:27 AM

By now everyone knows that the evil Bushitler is the true culprit.


Posted by filistro | August 3, 2007 10:29 AM

Let's say you're an international terrorist group motivated by religious zealotry and dreams of global mastery.

You know you'll have to take on the most powerful nation on earth to acheive your goal. How best to go about his?

Well, you could send your agents to their country to bomb their bridges, towers, levees, water treatment facilities, power plants and dams. It's not all that hard... their borders and ports are open and largely unguarded. (Maybe after a few more really terrifying events they might harden their targets, though. You never know.)

But wait... how about this idea? You provoke them into a needless, endless, unwinnable and ruinously costly war. If it's fought on your turf, killing your civilians, you'll have no trouble with recruitment. Plus, it won't cost you much at all.

Then you can just sit back and watch while years drag on and all that expensive enemy infrastructure crumbles due to neglect... along with their once-powerful military and their national unity, pride and optimism.

Which would be easier for you?

Posted by Dave | August 3, 2007 10:35 AM

George Bush doesn't care about Norwegian-American and Hmong-American people!

Posted by Halteclere | August 3, 2007 10:45 AM

We don't know if the latest inspection was botched, or if the latest inspection was top-notch and the failure occurred on what was presumed an uncritical element. We don't know if the on-going construction worsened an existing problem that was slated to be addressed in the near-future. We don't know if there truly was money set as for necessary bridge repair, if there was a transportation issue (is there a seasonal peak / dip in traffic?) for delaying the repair of the bridge. Really, at this time there is nothing that we do know.

So everyone is using this event as a blank canvass to splat their conspiracy theories of what they think is wrong with the world.

If it was to turn out that this failure resulted from some construction guy nicking (and compromising) an important structure element while he was saw-cutting a section of the roadway, thus beginning a cascade of structural failures resulting in the bridge collapsing, I doubt there will be few apologies for all the drive-by blaming that is going on.

Posted by Will Allen | August 3, 2007 10:51 AM

If there was a funding problem, which I am very doubtful of, it is mostly attributable to spending 1 billion dollars to achieve 30,000 rides of less than nine miles per day on a light rail line, as opposed to spending a fraction of that on a bridge that carries, depending on the varying estimates I've seen, 150,000 to 200,000 vehicles a day.

I'm not necessaily opposed to rail, when existing right of ways can be used at a cost proportionate to ridership and miles traveled. I think the Northstar line will prove to be a wise investment, and perhaps one of the proposed southwest light rail lines can be executed efficiently. The Hiawatha line, however, is simply, grossly, not cost-effective, and the proposed central corridor line will be the same. A wasted billion (or more) here, and a wasted billion (or more) there, and the day comes when there is less money available to do stuff that is really needed.

If the day comes that a consensus develops around Pawlenty having some responsibility for what happened two days ago, that consensus will only makes sense after the same thinking has been advanced with regards to a certain retired wrestler, and perhaps the son of a former Vice President, along with others in the legislature .

Posted by Will Allen | August 3, 2007 11:05 AM

Filistro, never let the facts get in the way of a polemic, huh? The wisdom of the Iraq war can be debated on legitimate fronts, but if one is going to yammer about "ruinous costs", one should be honest enough to note what % of gdp defense spending consumes today, even with the Iraq war, as opposed to the post WWII norm. Somehow, the interstate highway system was built while defense spending was consuming a much higher percentage of gdp, or even the federal budget, than is the case today.

This war may turn out to be a historical folly, or a historically beneficial conflict, or of an indeterminate nature, and presuming to make definitive historical judgements in real time regarding something as complex as war is a fool's errand, but if it turns out to be folly, it won't be due to it's "ruinous cost". Sure, make your best guess regarding how this war will turn out. It's the best that any of us can do. Please don't be disingenuous about what can be definitivelly measured, however.

Posted by tom | August 3, 2007 11:21 AM

Re: Light Rail

I don't think the question ever was either "Fund Light Rail" or "Fix Our Infrastructure". The debate was always: "Fund Light Rail" or "Build a Busway" or "We should be widening the freeways and building more roads".

Think about the bigger picture. How many people traveled over that bridge daily? Considering the weight of the drivers and adding the weight of the vehicles they're driving, how much load does that put on the bridge? You're using a vehicle that weighs a ton or two just to transport a body that weighs on average less than 200 lbs.

Now, put the same number of people in a train. Which puts more stress on the infrastructure? If transit were a bigger part of the transportation system, could we move more people over less expensive and more easily maintained infrastructure? Could we extend the life and improve the safety of our aging and overloaded bridges? Something to think about.

Posted by Will Allen | August 3, 2007 11:36 AM

tom, if it was 1960 again, then a lot of of options could compete on the basis of cost-effectiveness. It ain't 1960 again, so that means it becomes very difficult for rail to be cost-effective, in a metroplis lacking density like the Twin Cities, except in those instances where lenghty pre-existing right of ways can be utilized. Using a billion to transport a relatively small amount of people a short distance means that there will be less money, a finite resource, to be used to transport larger numbers of people.

Posted by filistro | August 3, 2007 11:41 AM

Will... I know you're right, and you make good sense, and it's always wiser to take a long view of history.

(Though history does tell us of quite a few enemies who won great victories through a policy of slow bleed and attrition....)

My problem, I think, is that I am sad and in mourning both for America and for the Republican party. (I believe Peggy Noonan feels the same way these days. You read it in her columns, and hear it in her voice.)

And every local tragedy or disaster just makes it worse. I can hardly bear it anymore.

Americans used to feel, in consistent numbers of about 70%, that their country was going in the right direction. Now 19% feel that way. They used to think their military was noble and invincible. Now they look at Iraq and Abu Ghraib, and they wonder. They felt their judiciary was incorruptible, and their intelligence gathering was top-notch, world-class, totally reliable.

Most of all, they used to think their conservative party was upright, wise, prudent and responsible, and wouldn't waste their money, or shame them in front of the world.

Now the only overriding philosophy among Republicans seems to be "But the Democrats are worse!" Sometimes I think Republicans have become a party that hates the Democrats more than they love their own country.

When I saw that bridge dropping into the water, I just felt so sad. I can't seem to get over it.

Posted by Jazz | August 3, 2007 11:51 AM

While the human tragedy in terms of loss of human life, injury and associated trauma are very real, I had been waiting since the first news of this story broke to exactly what form the finger pointing would take. I'll have to tip my hat to the Capt. for being one of the more restrained, realistic voices on the issue.

I've already taken considerable flack on this over at Middle Earth Journal, but it occurs to me that it should be important to remember that our daily lives constantly depend on technology. Sometimes that technology fails. We build things. Sometimes those things break.

Does this mean I'm advocating doing nothing? Obviously not.. The point is that it is simply wrong to try to turn this particular situation into a political football. Placing blame here or there seems to be less productive than seeing, for once, a real solution to a real problem. I believe that there are still people in this country who have an honest interest in seeing the two parties engage in a true bipartisan effort at creating, at least for a brief period, a functional government that works in the best interest of all Americans.

This is never going to happen on the flashy, "big ticket" poltical hot potatoes. The lines have been drawn and they're not going to converge. But if there's one issue where everyone can come together, repairing the country's infrastructure seems to be it. It's boring. It's gray. It's politically inert.

This is a moment where the challenge can be thrown down in front of Congress. It can be thrown by the public and, in large part, by the voice of the blogosphere as a megaphone for those voices. We can challenge them to be brave enough to not find some way to make the other party out to be the bad guys... the enemy.

Or are we so far gone down the red/blue divide that I'm just dreaming?

Posted by Captain Ed | August 3, 2007 11:56 AM


Allow me to return the compliment by emphasizing how rational and reasonable both you and Ron have been at Middle Earth Journal. We haven't agreed on the issues, but both of you contribute positively to the debate, both there and here in the comments.

Posted by Tom | August 3, 2007 12:10 PM


No it's not going to be 1960 again, and the population density in the Twin Cities is an issue but it's likely to go up and not down. We can't afford to build and maintain the roads to accommodate the expansion that's occurred up to this point. So do we invest in a more sensible infrastructure now or wait until it gets even more expensive?

I will agree that the Hiawatha Line is not the ideal place for rail if your goal is to move the most number of people. The thing is that rail opponents fought tooth and nail to prevent light rail from happening _anywhere_.

What the Hiawatha line has done is prove that people will willingly ride trains if that option is made available to them. That is not true of buses. Ridership on the line has far exceeded expectations and has made projects like the Northstar line politically more palatable to people on both sides of the aisle.

I frequently take the train to and from work. It's full. I've talked to many riders who here on business or who are riding downtown from the mall. Many of them lament that they wished they had something like the Hiawatha line in their city.

The impacts of the Hiawatha line extend far beyond that narrow strip between the Mall of America and Downtown Minneapolis.

Posted by Tom | August 3, 2007 1:03 PM

I take it back.

As far as getting across the river goes, it is the 1960's again. That bridge has to be rebuilt and should be designed to accommodate future rail traffic as well as the 8 lines of automobile traffic that it served in the past.

A potential line could run North towards a park and ride either in Rosedale or possibly the Stinson/Industrial blvd area. Think of the congestion that could be eliminated getting downtown via 35W and Washington Ave.

Posted by Will Allen | August 3, 2007 1:04 PM

Tom, we certainly can afford to build and maintain the roads needed to accomodate the expansion that's occurred to this point, especially if we aren't spending 1 billion dollars to move what still amounts to, even considering the numbers which exceed projections, a relatively small number of people a short distance. I'd like the taxpayers to pay for a helicopter to pick me up on a pad constructed in my backyard at taxpayer expense, to fly me to work, dropping me off on yet another taxpayer built pad on the roof of my business. It wouldn't be a good use of money, however, and would involve taking funds away from more cost-effective means of transport.

Like I said, I think there are some applications for rail which make sense. Why not start there?

Posted by Will Allen | August 3, 2007 1:31 PM

filistro, political parties to me are merely utilitarian institutions with which to achieve goals (the far most important goal to me being securing liberty), and certainly not anything to have emotional attachment to, being that any political party will have a substantial percentage.of knaves, jackals, and fools who are endeavoring to use that political institution for the purpose of channeling state power to gain illegitimate advantage over others. If one has a realistic view of human nature, one tends not to get either too pessimistic or optimistic about these things.

Similarly, ir one has a realistic view of warfare, one is neither surprised or disappointed when it is discovered that human beings have done awful things in the context of war. Anybody who thinks the U.S. military's behavior in this war has been notably illegitimate in the use of violence just doesn't know enough history about the behavior of the U.S. military, and I'll stipulate that the U.S. military has used violence more legitimately, and less arbitrarily, than any dominant military power in history. Sure, misbehavior is to be punished, often quite severely, but one really shouldn't be shocked by it.

Posted by Tom | August 3, 2007 1:40 PM


I have no problem starting where rail makes the most sense. My point is that before the Hiawatha Line there was tremendous resistance to putting rail anywhere. To a large number of influential people, rail didn't make sense period.

Besides, having the Hiawatha line already in place adds value to future rail projects, like Northstar that will connect to it. Norhstar riders will be able to go all the way to the airport and the MOA instead of just downtown.

The Hiawatha line has opened people's minds to other possibilities besides buses and more car lanes.

As I recall the cost was $715 million and not 1 billion. Certainly not cheap, but I don't think it's fair to round up when we're talking about 285 million dollars ;-)

And it would have cost far less if it had built a decade earlier instead of being debated endlessly.

Posted by Will Allen | August 3, 2007 1:40 PM

To add on, filistro, anybody who ever thought our judiciary was incorruptible or our intelligence gathering top notch and totally reliable simply hasn't been paying attention to what has occurred since 1776, 1936, 1956, 1986, or any other year.

Look, I'm not a pessimist by any means, but I've never understood the urge for nostalgia grounded in ahistoricism.

Posted by Will Allen | August 3, 2007 1:45 PM

Tom, my recollection is that once all unexpected (sure, unexpected) costs were totaled, it ran to somewhere between 950 million to a billion. I certainly could be wrong, however.

Posted by Will Allen | August 3, 2007 1:54 PM

Tom, maybe the debate would have been shorter if a line had been built first where it made more sense. All water under the bridge now, I suppose, but I fear the proposed central corridor , in it's current form, is going to do great harm to many people, and thus impair the development of any colation that may form for the purpose of getting sensible rail built. It sounds like a wealth-destroyer to me, especially for all the small businesses which have gained momentum in the Midway district.

Posted by Ray | August 3, 2007 6:37 PM

The bridge in question was under repair when the collapse occurred. Since these types of highway projects are planned, and their funding approved, years in advance of their implementation, I highly doubt the Pawlenty administration had much to do with any possible cause of the collapse.

There are various reasons for a bridge collapse, including, but not limited to, poor design and deficient construction materials or procedures.

Has anyone considered the possibility that the bridge design itself lead to a failure of a critical component which caused the collapse? It is possible that the designers and engineers did not anticipate the amount of traffic the bridge was subjected to and did not provide adequate support for the weight of that traffic.

Has anyone considered the possibility that a flaw occurred during construction? Has anyone considered the possibility that some of the materials that were used in construction were substandard? It is possible that some critical component was improperly manufactured or installed incorrectly and later failed due to use.

It is also possible that combination of poor design, inadequate materials, and improper construction were all factors in this collapse.

It is possible that none of these were factors and some unknown even occurred that lead to the collapse. This could include the possibility that, while under repair, a mistake was made and some critical fastener was removed without adequate support. It is also possible that a large truck that was being used during repairs struck and damaged a support pylon.

Since we don't know what caused the collapse, anything could be a possible culprit. Let's wait until the actual cause of this collapse is determined before we start pointing fingers and playing the blame game.

Posted by dr. luba | August 4, 2007 1:06 PM

"Somehow, the interstate highway system was built while defense spending was consuming a much higher percentage of gdp, or even the federal budget, than is the case today."

Ah, the Eisenhower administration. A Republican presidency. Anyone recall what the income tax rates were back then?

Posted by Halffasthero | August 6, 2007 11:14 AM

My first time commenting on this blog.

I read the exchange between Tom and WIll - personally I think that more rail will be better in the long run. Put simply, traffic is NOT going to get better, it will get worse. That cannot be argued. There are only a finite amount of areas for road expansion short of eminent domain and stripping out residences or buildings. A single rail line can move more people that a single roadway for less wear and tear. The start up costs become more and more painful as time wears on so it is a decision that needs to be made immediately.

My thoughts on where a new line should run start along I-394 although an argument can be made for between St Paul and Mpls.

Feel free to shoot me down. : )

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