What’s The Rush?

DFL legislators questioned the “frenzied rush” to replace the St. Anthony Bridge that collapsed in Minneapolis two weeks ago. In a joint Transportation Committees hearing, MnDOT management got the message that the state legislature wants to get a better idea of why the first bridge collapsed before building its replacement, and also to ensure that the replacement meets traffic needs for the next several decades:

State transportation officials were repeatedly told by DFL legislators Wednesday to put the brakes on their fast-track plans to replace the collapsed I-35W bridge and concentrate instead on making sure the new bridge is safe and meets the needs of Minnesotans for decades to come.
“I’m going to need a lot of assurances that building it fast equals building it right,” said Sen. Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope. “And I’m not there yet.”
She was one of three dozen members of the Joint House and Senate Transportation Committee who grilled three top officials of the Minnesota Department of Transportation Wednesday. After two hours so many legislators still had questions that the hearing was recessed until next week.

Rep Betty McCollum may have taken the chutzpah award, however. The Congresswoman from St. Paul actually had the temerity to stand up and say:

“[M]any people have expressed to me their extreme dismay at the frenzied rush to replace the bridge. A tragedy of this magnitude demands that we take a collective breath and assess the shortcomings of the old structure and the challenges of our future transportation needs. … Unfortunately, it appears haste is governing how we move forward on planning and construction.”

I wonder if Rep. McCollum happened to give this same speech to some of her DFL colleagues? For instance, she could have told this to Senator Amy Klobuchar, who announced within hours of the collapse that it was caused by a lack of funds and that new taxes were needed. Ditto for James Oberstar, the Congressman who helped lard the transportation bill with so many earmarks that one out of every seven dollars Minnesota received from Congress got redirected to a host of low-priority projects, who also demanded an increase in the federal gas tax.
Too many people have leapt to conclusions, and the leapers have little credibility to criticize those who want to take action to resolve the crisis. In this case, though, they may have a point. Expedited construction has worked well in the past, but not so for expedited design and planning. Usually that creates more problems than it resolves and winds up costing everyone more money than gets allocated. That’s been true in every private-sector project I’ve worked, and doubly true for public-sector projects for which my tax money has been spent.
Minneapolis can’t wait for years to replace this bridge, and most people understand that much. The traffic diversions put enormous stress on roads and communities that weren’t designed to handle these increased loads. Businesses in the affected areas will lose revenue while traffic gets diverted away from them, and the longer the city goes without a replacement, the more likely it will be that some of the smaller businesses close — and their jobs disappear.
We need to find some way to expedite the planning process enough to get the project started, but with enough flexibility that its planning is effective and comprehensive. It’s better to get anything done right the first time rather than regret the outcome and have to continually fix what should have been foreseen. The state legislature will have to show some flexibility as well, and avoid the impulse to posture themselves as running the show at the expense of actually making progress. So far, we’ve seen enough posturing to last us the rest of the year.

11 thoughts on “What’s The Rush?”

  1. Ed, I think you’re missing the most important aspect of this “timing” calculus. If the project is expedited, the politicians will have less opportunity for mischief such as getting bits of their favorite pet projects included in the project (light rail?) and padding the pockets of their favorite constituents.

  2. The real reason they want to slow down is to fatten the project to include side projects and mass transit spending.

  3. Each of the motorists stock in traffic should phone, or email senator’s Ann Rest office. Right now it seems only narrow group of various “mass transit” and “green planet” activists do so. Why on earth SHE wants to know why the bridge collapsed before starting anything?

  4. “We need to find some way to expedite the planning process enough to get the project started, but with enough flexibility that its planning is effective and comprehensive.
    You should run for office; that’s just the sort of meaningless piety a politician would offer as a pearl of great wisdom.
    It’s almost as good as “I stand firmly and decisively on my party’s plank of being in favor of good things and against bad things.”

  5. Approving a new design really shouldn’t hinge on knowing why the old bridge collapsed.
    Supposedly, we know quite a bit more these days about bridge design, loading, materials, and stresses that the cause of the old bridges collapse is immaterial to the replacement, unless they are considering a near identical design.
    Immolate and Nordeaster have it right. The politicians haven’t had enough time to line up their mischief and are just using this as cover to get all their quacks in a row.
    Here in Washington, we had our gas tax go up to help replace an aging bridge in Seattle. That was two years ago. There still isn’t even a plan on what the replacement will be – tunnel, surface street, bridge….
    It was an “emergency” to replace this bridge because of an earthquake we had 61/2 years ago…….
    But we’ve been paying the tax….. Want to take bets on whther they feel they need to raise the taxes again – to expedite the process?

  6. I suggest that the sudden call for INaction is due less to a desire to slow things up so they can pork things up and MORE to simply jackass contrariness. The Republican governor wants to get things moving. Well! If Pawlenty wants it, it must be bad, so we’ve gotta stop it even if it means leaving people stuck in traffic for the next forty years!
    Naturally, the new bridge should be done right. If dems like Rest want to make sure that design, contracting and construction are done with due regard for cost and public safety, nobody can fault them for that.
    I just hope they don’t demand that additional millions are spent to ensure that the bridge has “light rail” or a bike path…

  7. The only issue for the new bridge is whether the foundation will be solid. That’s about it. Beyond that, it doesn’t really matter why the 1960s bridge failed. The new bridge will no doubt be based on a well-tested plan off the shelf, and then overbuilt till it’s strong as a bomb shelter, just to ease everybody’s fears. It shouldn’t take a long time. Just a big open checkbook.

  8. I 35W is a major throughofare in the area and the bridge needs to be replaced asap. I can understand being reluctant to use the “design as you go” approach as this is a recipe for disaster, but there are plenty of existing designs available that can be used.

  9. Don’t understand what “Rushing” means, it sounds like there’s a construction crew already at the site and the bridge is going up!
    MnDOT already knows the size of the bridge, it is limited by the land available for the road that feeds to it…what good is an (8) lane bridge if there’s only (6) lanes feeding into it or are they planning rerouting I35?

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