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Molnau gets defensive; Pawlenty may give in on gas tax increase

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Carol Molnau
Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau defended MnDOT and her role there as she spoke to reporters Friday about the I-35W bridge collapse.
MPR Photo/Elizabeth Stawicki

 Gov. Tim Pawlenty is willing to retreat from his firm opposition to a state gas tax increase in the wake of the Minneapolis bridge collapse and approve a transportation funding bill during a possible special session, a spokesman said Friday.

      The state's gas tax has been at 20 cents per gallon since 1988. Attempts to raise it in 2005 and earlier this year ran into Pawlenty vetoes.

      "We're willing to consider all options, including a gas tax," said Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung.

      When pressed, McClung said Pawlenty would sign a bill with a gas tax as long as legislators accept some of his ideas for funding roads and bridges.

 "This report essentially says, 'Hey, either replace the bridge or do remedial repair.' And what was done was virtually nothing."

 No date has been set and the details of emergency legislation still have to be worked out.

      The gas-tax shift is a huge political concession for Pawlenty, who has stood firmly against any state tax increases during his four and a half years in office.

Pawlenty's second-in-command, Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau, scoffed at the idea of a gas tax increase at a press conference Friday. Molnau doubles as the state transportation commissioner.

      "If you think raising the gas tax will take care of the problems - because that's how we've always paid for our infrastructure - it can't keep up any longer," Molnau said. "We do need to look for resources that we can count on long term. But I will tell you, we would have to raise the gas tax 34, 35 cents a gallon to do what you're asking us to do. And I don't think the motoring public nor the commerce in this state could sustain that."

Since the moment the bridge fell, there have been questions about whether a lack of funding played a role in the state transportation department's decisions on maintaining the bridge. 

Specifically, whether engineers chose to conduct inspections on the I-35W bridge rather than go with spending more funds on adding steel plates to the bridge, as one study recommended.  

In her first appearance since the collapse, Molnau appeared to take offense when asked about the funding.

"No matter what else happens in the system, safety is the number one priority. Whatever the budget is, the dollars go into safety first and that is the number one priority.  We will never compromise safety," Molnau said. 

When asked about whether her staff could have erred, Molnau acknowledged errors were possible, but she passionately defended MnDOT engineers and their work.

"These people work day and night to make sure we have a safe system.  And we strive for that. Our inspectors are known nationally because they're good. We have a great group of experts here working on a system," said Molnau. "We've had a terrible thing happen. But believe me -- there was no intent, no neglect and no malice on their parts.  Nor do I think it should be implied."

Molnau also noted that her daughter drove on the I-35W bridge twice a day before it collapsed.  

But one engineering expert calls the bridge collapse a systematic failure -- from inspection to the politicians. 

"If a bridge of this nature falls, some major mistakes were made. And I think they were systematic," said University of St. Thomas engineering professor John Abraham. 

He said there's a lot of blame to go around.

"The welding at the joints was terrible. They had extensive rust and vertical pitting. There were vertical cracks in the cross beams," said Abraham. "This report essentially says, 'Hey, either replace the bridge or do remedial repair.' And what was done was virtually nothing."

Minnesota Department of Transportation state engineer Dan Dorgan says during the past three years, a consulting firm studying the bridge offered the state two major alternatives -- add steel plates to the critical members to reinforce them, or conduct a thorough inspection of the welds.

"After further review, questions were raised as to would we create more problems?" said Dorgan. "The plates required a tremendous amount of hole-drilling in the existing steel to make those attachments.  There were concerns raised for whether that would create an unintended problem with the structure."

The state decided to go the inspection route. There have been reports that there was dissension within MnDOT over which course to pursue.  

But Dorgan says there was a consensus in the end, and any disagreements would have been part of the give-and-take in meetings.  He says there was no one in the discussions that stood up and said that the state should go a different route.  

MnDOT officials also announced Friday that a fourth bridge has been added to the list of state bridges that have a design like the 35W bridge. It's a bridge located in Sauk Rapids. 

The inspections of the three other bridges began Friday, and will be completed next week. 

Pawlenty also wants a second round of inspections for the 106 bridges in the state that have been designated as structurally impaired.