The Star Tribune’s Tony Kennedy deserves some love for his story pointing out the bent I35W bridge gusset plates in photos that apparently were in the hands of the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) five years prior to the I35W bridge collapse.
In mid-January of this year, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) announced that flawed gusset plates were to blame for the collapse. The news that day read:
In a Washington news conference, NTSB Chairman Mark Rosenker also said there were no indications that Minnesota’s upkeep of the bridge played any role in its collapse — a statement that immediately unleashed political debate, with Gov. Tim Pawlenty scolding critics for leaping to conclusions and DFLers insisting that the full cause has yet to be found.”
The fact that these bent gusset plate photos were in state officials’ hands in 2005 seems to suggest that the bridge safety inspection could have been better.
Journalists have more digging to do, because we need to know what happened with these photos. Did inspectors not see the bending? Did they see them, but conclude it wasn’t a serious problem? Did inspectors conclude it was serious problem, but conclude that all potential fixes were more dangerous than the problem itself? Or did the safety inspectors recommend a solution that was shot down higher up the food chain? If so, did the leadership forgo repairs because of technical concerns or budgetary concerns?
For me, this kind of dispassionate questioning isn’t about blaming Pawlenty, Molnau or committed MnDOT employees. This is about learning from any mistakes, so we can build a better safety oversight system that keeps Minnesota bridges upright in the future.
The rest of us don’t have the time to schlep through hundreds of photos with straight edge rulers up against gusset plates. I’m grateful at least one newsroom in town does.