Report: Money Woes Could Have Led to Bridge Collapse

Tue June 10, 2008 - National Edition
Brian Bakst - ASSOCIATED PRESS



ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) Money worries may have led to bad maintenance decisions for the Minneapolis bridge that collapsed and killed 13 people last August, a report released May 21 concluded.

The report, commissioned by the Legislature, also criticized the Minnesota Department of Transportation for bridge inspections that were mishandled or not acted upon over the years, even when they called for immediate repairs.

The department has come under sharp criticism for its upkeep of the 40-year-old bridge, even as an ongoing federal investigation has highlighted a design flaw and the weight of construction materials, rather than maintenance, as critical factors.

“Financial considerations, we believe, did play a part in the decision-making” repair of the bridge, said Robert Stein, who oversaw the report prepared for lawmakers by the law firm Gray Plant Mooty.

“Sometimes it’s easier just to take the least expensive alternative or just commission another study,” Stein said.

Transportation Commissioner Tom Sorel, who took the job only last month after previous leader Carol Molnau was ousted, said he was reviewing the report and couldn’t comment in detail on many of its findings.

“Addressing the condition and safety needs of our bridge system has never been and never will be subject to question due to budgetary concern,” Sorel said. “We rely on and invest in the expert opinions and recommendations of our bridge engineering professionals.”

Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty has asked Sorel to determine whether the report should lead to changes in organization of the transportation department. But Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung said, “Until the cause of the collapse is determined, it is not possible to know whether anything in this report is relevant to the bridge collapse.”

Much of the report was devoted to flaws in the way the state DOT carried out inspections, then reacted to what they found. The report noted a lag of as much as six months between an inspection and the writing of a report, raising concerns that “fading memories” might lead to a lack of useful detail.

Department employees did not always follow proper procedure, the report said. For example, DOT inspectors repeatedly failed to precisely measure the deterioration of trusses, despite guidelines that they do so. Two inspectors who wrote reports on the bridge said they’d never even seen a written copy of those guidelines.

That meant the bridge’s weakened condition wasn’t factored in when its weight capacity was re-rated, most recently after renovations in 1998, according to the report. Supervisors who should have made sure the reports were complete did not, May 21’s report said.

The National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation of the collapse has found that some of the bridge gussets — the plates that helped connect its steel girders — were too thin because of a design error. The NTSB investigation also said that the weight of construction materials placed on the bridge during resurfacing also was a factor in the Aug. 1 collapse of the bridge, killing 13 and injuring 145 people.

The NTSB probe is expected to conclude later this year.