U Learn from U10?

On the anniversary of the I35W bridge collapse, I still wonder if Minnesota collectively learned the lessons that will help us prevent future infrastructure disasters.  I’m just not sure the news media was at its best on this story, as former Star Tribune columnist Nick Coleman points out today on his blog.  The Star Tribune’s Tony Kennedy did uncover photos of the bent gusset in the investigation file, and that was some terrific journalism.  But that story begged for important follow-up questions that I’m not sure ever were posed.

The questions I had on November 14, 2008 when the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) came out with its final report are the same questions I have today.  And four years later, I worry that a smaller group of news reporters has even less capacity to investigate such complex stories than it had then.

For old times sake on this sad anniversary, my earlier bridge collapse questions from my November 14, 2008 post follow.  They weren’t comfortable to pose then, because no one likes finger-pointing.  They are no more comfortable to pose now.  But if we want to learn from history, the questions have to be asked…

U See U10, U Fix U10?

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has concluded that the I35W bridge collapse was caused by undersized gusset plates and oversized construction load, and that corrosion did not cause the collapse. I’m as far from an engineer as you can get, but all of that makes logical sense to me.

But it strikes me that the NTSB made an error of ommission. It failed to explore why no steps were taken to address a gusset plate that was known to be badly warped, more than four years before the collapse.

Some terrific investigative reporters at the Star Tribune discovered that Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) bridge inspectors had a June 12, 2003 photo of a very warped U10 gusset plate in their inspection file. U10 is the plate that NTSB says failed.

That part of the process seemed to work well, and we should be comforted by that. Inspectors spotted and documented a major problem.

But then what? Did the inspector report the problem to superiors? Did the inspectors’ superiors discuss options for strengthening the warped plate? If strengthening or replacing was technically infeasible, did MnDOT consider closing the bridge, as they have in the face of similar problems in St. Cloud and Hastings?

Assuming the plate couldn’t be fixed, why didn’t someone at least warn against parking several tons of construction equipment — reportedly the largest load the bridge had ever borne, equal to the weight of a 747 jet — directly on top of the badly warped U10 gusset?

These are legitimate questions that the NTSB seems to have bypassed.

Think of it this way. Imagine if a doctor spotted a tumor, stuck a PET scan of it in the file, labeled the tumor an unfortunate biological design flaw, and took no further action to prevent further damage from the flaw. The doctor would be 100% correct; the tumor is a design flaw, and not her fault. But the doctor would still need to explore all options for removing, killing or slowing the tumor.

And so it goes with MnDOT. The NTSB seems to have done excellent work examining the strictly technical issues behind the collapse. But for whatever reason, it stopped short of delving into the human and process issues.

I have no interest in villifying MnDOT. They do amazing work that keeps us safe, and keeps our society and economy humming along. I just want to see a great agency get better. There was a gap between inspectors seeing the flawed U10 gusset plate and MnDOT doing anything about it. To prevent future catastrophes, NTSB needs to help us understand the reasons for that gap.

5 thoughts on “U Learn from U10?

  1. Newt says:

    I have to give you some credit, Joe. At least you didn’t echo Bruce’s knee-jerk (within 24 hours) diagnosis of under-taxation as the cause of the bridge collapse.

    This most likely is a case of laziness on the part of bridge inspectors. They figured they’d report it mañana, but never got around to it.

    1. Gailkate says:

      Budget problems in critical state agencies go back through several commissioners and changes in the dominant party. Federal transportation money is offered for new projects, not for repair and maintenance. Of course we needed more money. Think back to Arne Carlson’s administration. State agencies have been told to cut and do more with less ever since.
      The inspectors were not lazy, and they did report their findings. Does Newt not read?

      1. Newt says:

        MN state government budget has been growing double-digits every year since the 70s. There is no revenue problem, my friend.

  2. Joe Loveland says:

    I can’t tell you if Newt or Bruce and Gailkate are correct, because the NTSB apparently stopped all questioning after the “it’s a design flaw” determination.

    Beyond the “design flaw” determination, which I have no reason to dispute, a lot of very basic questions remain:

    * Did NTSB ask the inspectors if they reported the U10 warp to superiors?

    * If the inspectors did report the U10 warp to supervisors, did NTSB ask supervisors what fixes they considered, and why they ultimately decided not to act on any of the fixes? (By the way, their answers may have nothing to do with lack of money, such as the potential fixes being technically infeasible or a determination that the warp didn’t pose much of a danger.)

    * If NTSB did ask these questions, why weren’t the answers made public in the final report, so Minnesotans could learn how to make our bridge safety reporting processes better in the future?

    * If NTSB didn’t ask these things (?!), why didn’t reporters follow-up and ask MnDOT leadership the same questions, for the same reasons?

    “Design flaw” is a legitimate part of the story. But it’s not the whole story. Questions about the safety reporting process matter too.

  3. Years later, my knee is still jerking. Voters and politicians are still pretending that we don’t need to support the common weal with taxes. There will be thousands of bills coming due in the coming years — disasters we can foresee but won’t spend to avoid.

    And yes, Joe, the thinning ranks of journalists mean less investigation, less reporting, less uncovering of problems. But, you know, when the government tells me everything is okay, it makes me feel much better. And when the private sector tells me everything is fine with the environment and all that stuff, I feel much much better.

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