Bridges Shouldn’t Fall Down

Governor Pawlenty:

My office window overlooks the I-35W bridge, officially known as Bridge 9340. Now it will always be identified as the bridge that fell down.

Major bridges should not deconstruct by accident. Public accountability and restoring trust in government require that you remove Lieutenant Governor Carol Molnau as commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MNDOT).

First, let me say this is not an attack upon your leadership or administration in general. The Department of Public Safety, led by your outstanding commissioner Michael Campion, the Office of Emergency Preparedness, and many others responded efficiently and with the highest level of professionalism. But disasters are most efficiently met by avoidance.

Bridge 9340 first became a concern in a 1990 report that noted its “structural deficiencies.” By 1999, engineers declared that cracks found in the bridge were “a major concern.” As detailed in the outstanding journalism of Star Tribune reporters Tony Kennedy and Paul McEnroe, the transportation department received numerous reports of the deteriorating condition of the I-35W bridge.

I can’t find a time when Molnau warned us of structurally deficient bridges, asked for more money to maintain bridges, or discussed the need for additional bridge inspections. There’s no way of telling if she raised such concerns with you privately, but I ask that you weigh the answer to that question as you are deciding whether or not to remove her from her position.

When you first announced that you were going to appoint a partisan, part-time corn and soybean farmer with no college degree, you referred to her as a “one-woman SWAT team” who would shake up MNDOT, “grab lapels and kick down office doors.” Molnau, upon accepting your appointment as commissioner, said that “what’s been lacking at MNDOT is a vision of priority and accountability” (my emphasis). At best, she’s had a rocky relationship with the legislature.

Other governors have appointed non-politicians, but they had expert backgrounds in transportation. Molnau’s predecessor, Elwyn Tinklenberg, was president of the Minnesota Transportation Alliance, a Blaine mayor, and a member of state and regional transportation committees. James Denn, appointed by Arne Carlson, was executive director of the Minnesota Trucking Association and a member of state and industry transportation committees. Rudy Perpich appointed Leonard Levine, a member of the Metropolitan Airports Commission and Metropolitan Transit Commission.

Al Quie appointed Richard Braun, who had degrees in civil engineering and highway transportation, was vice president of a Chicago engineering firm, and was transportation department deputy commissioner. Wendell Anderson appointed James Harrington, who had degrees in geography and public administration, was president of a major engineering firm, and was a member of city and national planning offices.

These were the transportation commissioners during the time that the I-35W bridge was still standing. They made “tough” decisions, not just in cutting engineering staff (as Molnau has by 9 percent), but in actually closing dangerous bridges. Commissioner Braun closed St. Paul’s High Bridge in 1984.

One of the busiest and most important bridges in the Upper Midwest has collapsed on Commissioner Molnau’s watch. “Accountability,” a word much in vogue, should be applied in this case.

This letter may be late. One suspects you have made a decision to replace Molnau, who has been all but invisible since the bridge all but disappeared. You have found professionals for other departments. We need a professional running our transportation department. Go find one.

 

Sincerely yours,

Vance K. Opperman

A Commuter

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