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August 04, 2007


Sara thanks for the post. I'll watch the news coverage and see if I can spot the signs... Bridges not Bombs. My best to you, your family, friends and neighbors.

Sara, CNN's coverage of Commander Codpiece in Minn.MN. so far was limited to a shot of him disembarking Marine One with a military escort and tight shots of him at the bridge with no signage in the background.

If folks want the message to get out, they'd better record it off the local news and post it on YouTube.

Thanks for the post. It is great to be able to get a good picture on an issue that is both local and national w/out going to the MSM (Pravda USA).
Local politics are fascinating.
And so is the propensity to not record what looks bad. Bridge inspections, meat and food inspections. No body counts in Iraq. And they stopped counting salmon on NW rivers to help the dam operators.....
Government should work, dammit!

Sara - thanks for the post, I love reading about nuts and bolts politics in other jurisdictions. Failing infrastructure stories seem to be panicking the Republicans, the pushback has already begun that transportation spending is all of the "bridge to nowhere" variety, and not a prudent public investment that can benefit everyone and encourage sensible energy and land development policies. Today, Keith Ellison and another Minnesota Democrat were slammed on CNN, the piece was on Congressional "earmark" spending, and Ellison was slammed for an earmark supporting "light rail", as was the other Democrat. No context at all on the earmark, that would have been too much work. It was easier for the Norquist types to get away with strangling the baby when it was education and other programs that suffered from the Prop 13 mentality, the effects are more long term and less obvious, but when bridges start collapsing and steam pipes start exploding, people tend to notice such things. Bravo for the excellent report from a state that I had always associated with good government, the DFL branch of the Democratic party, Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale, - HOW did the Colemans and the Venturas and so forth ever get established there?

Thanks for the post. Very informative and a good history and overview of the problem.

It also read like a good episode of The Sopranos or Deadwood if you substitute "shot" for "subdued".

Many thanks for another outstandingly informative post. Keep us posted for any local visuals that show the reception Bush gets.

And heartfelt best wishes to you and all metro area Minnesotans dealing with the aftermath over the next year.

Per everyone else thanks Sara.
AP Photo of "Support Bridges Not War" sign.

The GOoPers that don't support transportation spending probably drive to work from their suburban 'estate homes' (their cars are probably leased, too). Well, most of them, I think. Then they complain about traffic ....

When Norquist et al were waxing poetic about shrinking the government until they could drown it in the bathtub, I don't suppose they realized that it would be American citizens in the Mississippi River....

Wasn't Norquist taking a percentage of every dollar he laundered for Ralph Reed from Abramoff's Native Americano Scam? Why isn't Norquist in jail? Let's have some straight talk about that clusterF#$% John McCain.

My buddy the retired bridge inspector here in Illinois advises all to pay attention when the Pontis Bridge Inspection program comes up in the investigation. Pontis was vigorously pushed by the Minnesota DOT to other states. Illinois looked at it and decided that it might be slightly valuable, with many changes, as only one tool to use in evaluating bridges. Nowadays, they've pretty much dropped it altogether.

A few other points: Virtually every large bridge that's failed is of the twin beam design. When one beam goes, the whole bridge collapses. To illustrate this, hold a couple straws in one hand parallel to each other and balance a playing card on them. Then remove one of the straws. The playing card in this instance matches the behavior of a bridge deck when one beam fails. This design means when one of the beams needs replacing, the entire bridge has to be shut down. Modern bridges have many beams holding up their decks and so can be repaired a lane at a time. They also don't fall down when one beam fails.

Second, my friend says that if bridge inspectors are properly trained and do their jobs, they will be effective. Bridge inspectors do not make decisions on whether bridges should be repaired or replaced. They inspect and make recommendations based on those inspections. Decisions on repairs and replacements are always political decisions made by managers and politicians. My buddy was frequently pressured to raise or lower bridge inspection scores by higher-ups. He refused, ever, to do so because, as he said, when he would at some time in the future, be called to testify before Congress concerning a bridge failure, he wanted to do so with a clear conscience.

For what it's worth, his prediction immediately after the bridge fell, and before the security video of the fall was released, was that it was likely one of the beams at the end of the bridge that failed, not one of the beams in the middle of the bridge.

It will be interesting to see what eventually happens with this, but I think we'd be safe in placing bets that political interference and placing efforts to save money (including schemes like Pontis) above making sure the bridge was safe will be the eventual outcomes.

Sara, again, thank you. I moved away from the Cities in 1978 and haven't really kept up on local politics. I'm in the DC area now and have plenty of input to feed my political jones around here. I remember the '62 fight over I-35 and my baby brother drove over that bridge on Wednesday morning. This whole story feels like a punch in the stomach to me: when I was at the U, lived in Dinkytown, blocks away from the bridge and drove it nearly every day.

Sara -- thanks. What occurs to me reading your story is the considerable confidence you folks seem able to have in Minnesota that your DFL legislators will actually fight for transportation money now that tragedy has created the political opening. I wouldn't have that confidence in the Dems in Sacramento -- too many have ties to too many highway contractors.

Hope folks make the most of it!

RAM -- good information. There is some sort of political decision on record, which has not yet been completely fessed up to, regarding the level of repair to the Bridge this year, that interests many of us. They did a "half inspection" and got a recommendation to attach steel plates to some of the truss sections and beams to reinforce them -- then they got a second consultant in and got another opinion, and decided on the resurfacing and joint work instead of the reinforcement. No one mentioned till it fell down that it was planned to completely rebuild it in 2020. Now they are saying -- well it was scheduled to be rebuilt in a few years -- yea, nice to know that. The Lt. Governor who is also the Commissioner of Administration was the one who decided on the cosmetic re-surfacing rather than the more expensive re-inforcement plan. I think this issue is stewing in the background, cause the Governor is all about claiming that if he had known -- if he had only known the bridge was dangerous, he would have "done something" -- maybe like line item veto a few more projects in the Transportation Bill. (HA) I gotta wonder what our Lt. Governor, Commissioner of Transportation was doing in China -- maybe trying to sell them a bridge???

So Bush was here, and while he was here Congress voted us 250 Million for a new bridge, and apparently Bush agrees to sign the emergency appropriation. One report has it that he was introduced to one of the divers on the Sheriff's team, but instead to talking the bridge, or diving, Bush discussed Airplanes with him. The diver is also a pilot. (Is Bush Scatterbrained??)

NTSB says that one assumption, that the bridge failed on the South Side, which had the significant displacement, can probably be ruled out, so now they are working on the North Side -- and that is just the west end of the bridge. No known recoveries today -- but one very badly crushed car hauled out may have a body inside. They have to pull it apart. Tomorrow they will start pulling the cars off the bridge remains. They seem to be speeding everything up, so I hope they are not compromising the investigation. Today the FBI appeared on the scene with some sort of high tech laser camera that has never been used before in public, but that maps down to the 16th of an inch.

Janinsanfran -- well we won 19 seats in the State House of Representatives last fall, mostly in suburban areas, with the campaigns out there focused on Transportation and Transit -- so the DFL, at last in control of both houses again, wrote a forward looking piece of legislation, and then Pawlenty pulled it to pieces -- no to the gas tax on philosophical grounds, and no to many other pieces. It was a huge fight at end of session. So yea, I think they will try to get as much as possible. Most DFL'ers take the public funding for campaigns -- so not so many depend on the road lobby.

And this is something everyone will be watching very closely.

One thing I have heard, and noticed from the video is that an additional lane was added in each direction. The video shows that the outside lane is snapped in at least one direction. If lanes were added and the bridge was a parking lot with maximum weight at the time of the collapse, maybe this was to blame. The most likely initial cause is too much load, but was the maximum load reduced by the jack-hammering done during the resurface? The repeating impacts could have caused more aging, very much more aging. I think of the Wa State Tacoma Narrows bridge which was downed by wind.

This bridge, New Orleans, and Pat Tillman are all related. Our infrastructure and social fabric are disintegrating before our eyes. "I pledge 'No New Taxes!!!'" is the refrain that we hear, but what do we get in return? A Dow at 14,000?

The Dow is a thermometer that is telling us we are sick and unstable. The symptoms of the disease are incompetence at directing a disaster recovery, the inability to fix the plumbing (so to speak) on our roadways. And the inability or unwillingness to tell the truth when something does go wrong. Oh, because there might be some liability, someone might find out. and it is better that a Nation dwell in unbelief rather than someone tell the truth. Well, I am sick of it.

I want someone to change the channel. But only I can do that.

Just read through the comments on MimiKatz's last post on our Bridge Nightmare, and I'll square up a few things. Minnesota has a law that for all practical purposes puts a ceiling on compensation of Public Officials, essentially it says no one can make more than the Governor, and the legislature is watched very closely when they raise that salary. There are a few exceptions -- the Gopher Basketball and Football Coaches make much more -- but the Leg will not make an exception for University President -- so the exceptions are not the rule. I believe that "law" is actually in the State Constitution. It pretty much limits high level compensation packages to about 185 thousand, and always is in the same range as a US Senator.



Something seems not quite right here.

Bruininks's salary

The board also agreed to raise President Robert Bruininks's base salary by 5 percent for each of the next two years: to $365,925 for 2005-06 and $384,212 in 2006-07. Bruininks' deferred compensation will also increase by $25,000 for each of the remaining years of the contract, which expires on June 30, 2008.

"This has been a time of bold and decisive leadership at the University in large part because of the performance of President Bruininks," said Board of Regents chair Anthony Baraga. "The compensation changes approved today are recognition of that leadership--and an important step in remaining competitive with comparable universities."



Thank you Sara and commenters, for this informative post which I have read with unglazed eyes and will keep handy for reference as this story continues.

I gotta wonder what our Lt. Governor, Commissioner of Transportation was doing in China -- maybe trying to sell them a bridge???

More likely looking for some kind of bridge financing* from the Chinese government, and not necessarily for the use of MN.

"I pledge 'No New Taxes!!!'" is the refrain that we hear, but what do we get in return? A Dow at 14,000?

Temporarily. And as you imply, that's quite meaningless. But the party in power will apparently not be satisfied until they prove once again that they can neither prevent nor ease a Depression (Not that I'm calling one, dagnabbitt!).

*A sign of the recently impending credit crunch is that banks have been getting stuck with bridge loans that they made to corporate borrowers who now cannot arrange the regular financing that's supposed to come in and replace the bridge. One hears their cries for aid unto the Federal Reserve through the night … (Amazing how the catastrophic collapse of buildings in the financial district ushered in a period of sudden collapse of enron, worldcom, adelphia, arthur andersen, lots of other stuff—and now the catastrophic collapse of a bridge occurs at the beginning of what is likely to be a godawful period of financial bridge failure. What are we up to?)

Although I'm in New Orleans, the I-35W bridge collapse hits very close to home. We have ancient bridges over the Mississippi River that date from the Depression days of Huey P Long (every man a king). In fact, the bridge named after Huey that crosses the Mississippi is currently being widened from 2 rail lines and 2 narrow lanes to 2 rail lines and 3 wide lanes with a shoulder. Being at a dead stop at the top of this span when a train passes is unnerving (can anyone say shake, rattle & roll). But I digress.

Be it FEMA's lawyers telling staff not to test formaldehyde levels in Katrina trailers so FEMA can claim not to know, the US Army Corps of Engineers claiming that the hurricane protection levees in New Orleans would easily withstand a Cat 3 hurricane, President Bush saying that we're winning the war in Iraq, or reports that deficient bridges like I-35W are safe to drive over, the evidence is clear. We must demand proof that our public infrastructure is safe AND accountability from the politicians/leaders that make these claims.

Thanks for a really insightful overview of what's happening here. You commented on a lot of things that the papers and news are tiptoing around.
If I may, I'd like to add a few points:
1. The StarTrib did post segments of a Carol Mulnou presser where she comes off as combatative and unapologetic; completely unwilling to accept any responsibility for the collapse. So many of Pawlenty's commisioners have this same attitude thru disaster after disaster (it was recently discovered that the health dept had sat for a whole year on reports detailing cancer deaths on the iron range. this is but one coverup).
2. There was a groundbreaking ceremony for a new heavily subsidized Twins stadium scheduled for the day after the bridge collapse. The event was cancelled because of the outrage that would have occurred over giving millions to billionaire Carl Pohlad for the Twins while people died on crumbling infastructure 10 blocks away.
3. Along with Sara's excellent report, the commentary of columnist Nick Coleman in the Mpls. Star Tribune has been a must-read. Nick is angry and ready to point fingers.

Elect a Republican...your bridge collapses.
Elect a Democrat...ride light rail to town.

I read an article in MySA.com today (San Antonio) and it told of a federal law making it illegal to reveal to the public information from a bridge safety report. I wonder if that might change now.

Transparency is a good thing.

Of course our taxes DO go up in Minnesota, but they are shunted to city governments and other entities and we pay the price in such costs as the shut-down of branch libraries because Minneapolis lacks the money to keep them open. A few blocks east of the bridge, and a couple blocks north of the University of Minnesota, the Dinkytown library is closed, and the neighborhood looks shabbier every year. The untended lawn of the library is grown up with weeds, now brittle and brown because of the drought and neglect, and two young ginkgo saplings planted by the city next to the curb have also died. While the sanctimonious governor trumpets No New Taxes, he has bled the cities dry. Throughout his term, citizens have posted yard signs declaring their WILLINGNESS to pay taxes for decent lives. The costs remain but are merely less visible, as city government struggles to keep our heads above water. Less visible until now, when we are paying the bills in such tender as our crushed and drowned neighbors, millions in cleanup costs, and the price of the backlog of work that has to be done anyway. The pusillanimous snake oil governor better retire to the deep woods and keep his head down for the rest of his life. And take Michelle Bachmann and the rest of their putative Christian gang with him. The next election will give them such a taste of Minnesota nice as they never dreamed lived under our decorous exteriors. In the meantime, I hope our legislature get everything they wanted, including extension of the light-rail system, with icing on it.

If a few more governors and state leaders (especially throughout the Mountain West) see Pawlenty pay a political price for his ardent 'tax cut' ideology, then perhaps some of the onlookers will think twice about vetoeing gas taxes and other infrastructure revenue streams.

I've been through endless hours of meetings at which politicos and appointeds failed to read engineering recommendations, failed to ask good questions, and then treated good engineering advice like disposable crap. Not surprisingly, I've also seen engineers (generally the best, most dedicated engineers) become cynical and sour -- a rational response to being repeatedly ignored. Instead of doing good work, these engineers write up boilerplate reports, produce generic work, and shift their emotional energy from transportation issues to baseball. I'd be curious to know how much of that went on at MN.

I've also noted that when as an elected official gains a reputation as a hard working, passionate, innovator, they become Talent Magnets. Resumes mysteriously turn up on their desks in the dead of night; they can pretty much hire the best, brightest talent. Doesn't happen often enough.

In your post, you allude to a set of related issues that all fall under 'urban design': commuter routes, parkways, bike paths... all of these types of infrastructure require government leadership, and the cities in the West with the best 'livability' indexes are all figuring out a way to implement the types of urban amenities you mention. The most 'livable' cities are getting a grip on urban design, but they're not getting help from the federal government.

With any luck, the sprawl enablers of Boise, Kalispell/Whitefish, Baker OR, Denver, Salt Lake City, Pendelton, etc, are all going to watch what happens in Mpls. Will Pawlenty end up paying a political price for sacrificing the Public Infrastructure baby on the altar of his Free Market, No Taxes ideology?

Al Gore raised the issues of urban design/sprawl, and also public infrastructure, in 2000. But David Broder and the rest of the MSM mocked Gore sneeringly for pointing out that urban design has profound, cumulative effects on sprawl, oil consumption, and global warming. (Duh.) Let's hope that this tragedy highlights the need for better urban planning -- one reason people in the West have been reluctant to pay taxes is because they're forever subsidizing sprawl. If their taxes went to something more appealing, they'd be less bitter. I'm unclear about whether MN has the same political dynamic.

(BTW: The only candidate that I've heard connect the dots between housing, transportation, global warming, and energy issues is Bill Richardson. Judging from what I've seen, Pawlenty is clueless. Not surprising, in view of the fact that this whole conversation was mocked in 2000; how would Pawlenty know about issues that have never been discussed as part of the national conversation? He wouldn't. And look what the result is.


Yes, today featured three calls for removing Carol Molnau as Commissioner of Transportation from Legislative Leaders. Apparently she has not been confirmed for her second term yet, so it is highly likely she will be unconfirmed. She is also Lt. Governor -- and it is highly irregular to have a constitutional officer also head a department. She was interviewed today and stuck to her guns on the theme, "no new taxes". I predict she will be gone in September. Commissioners are supposed to advocate the needs of their Departments -- she has been a ditto head for Pawlenty's philosophy.

Minnesota is supposedly ranked 12th best in the nation in taking care of infrastructure. (Alabama has no bridge inspectors, apparently). But Minnesota used to be third. This is coming to be an enlightening issue as local reporters dig into the history. Why did our ranking drop?

Yes, we have lots of bike paths. We have good advocates for them, and in the last two decades many have been incorporated into construction. But not nearly enough, and not necessarily in the right places. Now that they have re-opened the stone arch bridge, you can see one of the bike connecters to downtown a bit upstream from the 35W bridge site.

Light Rail is quite another story. We have one line open -- it took more than 20 years to build, finance, and plan, and it connects Downtown Mpls with the Airport and the Mall of America. There is another commuter rail, the NorthStar Line, that has planning and finance done, with construction to begin soon. It connects Big Lake with Down Town Mpls, designed to take traffic off 94, and it can ultimately go to St. Cloud. There are about 7 additional light rail routes planned --but thus far no financial plan. What Pawlenty Vetoed this year was investment in futher planning and financial organization, as well as a go ahead on the Central-University construction. (Congress has already earmarked money for this and it took some fancy dancing at the end of the last Congressional session to save that funding.) Republicans just don't like publicly owned and operated transit systems. However after saying no one would ride the Hiawatha line which opened about two years ago -- they now face the fact that ridership is 4 times what was predicted. As Treepoeny put it, they may get slapped with some very special Minnesota Nice come next election day.

As to lanes added to the bridge. No, they just rejiggered the lanes, they didn't really widen the bridge. Initially it was 6 lanes, three each way, with a break-down lane on each side. They eliminated that lane, and repainted the lanes, making for 4 in each direction.

Bridge load may not be a factor at the time of collapse as with resurfaceing underway, two lanes in each direction were closed. Thus the bridge was only carrying 50% of possible traffic load. Right now the leading surmise seems to be rusted and corroded and fractured steel in the superstructure. There is a consultant's recommendation about suggesting reinforcing the superstructure with steel plates, sent to MN-DOT last year. That was rejected in favor of resurfacing.

I've forgotten where I read it, but think the source was the Strib: a couple of bridge workers who followed it down into the river and got away told somebody that, as they took off one layer of concrete to make the repairs, the bridge shimmied more under them; when they took off another layer, the bridge shook even more. People I know who have driven that route regularly have said they could feel it tremble when they had to stop on it, especially as trucks passed.

I was a student at the U when 35W was built. It cut the city in half and gobbled a swathe of neighborhoods at least two blocks wide. Some of those houses, in the area of the U and between 46th and 50th or 52nd were beautiful old places--Mayor/Rep. Don Fraser used to live modestly near the University territory the highway ate, I think--maybe still does. The bridge and its approaches uglified that whole area. Maybe Mayor Rybak will be able to catch some leverage out of this. He has some lookahead views, such as the light rail system and citywide computer connection. If he had more money, he could do more good things.

"Mayor/Rep. Don Fraser used to live modestly near the University territory the highway ate, I think--maybe still does. The bridge and its approaches uglified that whole area."

Actually when they started tearing down houses, I lived three houses from the I-35 area, corner of 8th and 5th just across from the United Church of Christ church, and two blocks from the bridge in question. I lived there in the 63-64 period, but then I moved to Prospect Park, and eventually bought the place. Don's house now overlooks the freeway, and his space is the front lawn, but Arvonne owns the side lawn that fronts on the freeway. I say that because sometimes they don't agree on lawnsigns, and he has his spot, and she has hers.

Apparently the people installing WiFi in the city had wired the W. Bank before the collapse, and they turned it on and put all the emergency bands on it within ten minutes of the collapse, taking them off the cell phone net. The next day they quickly wired the area across the river, and thus had full coverage for rescue and all. It is still not into the Park.

Yea, I suspect that the bridge was really glued together with the asphalt and concrete surface more than with the supporting superstructure. As the press and others now go through the inspection records, that is emerging. It will be interesting as investigation goes forward and conclusions are drawn.

A Yellow Springs college article for Sara.

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