Bridge collapse arms Molnau critics

Molnau under fire
Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau, who is also Minnesota's transportation commissioner, defended herself and her agency Monday against criticism that MnDOT underfunding may have contributed to safety problems at the I-35W bridge.
MPR Photo/Sea Stachura

When Gov. Tim Pawlenty was first running for governor in 2002, he called his running mate a "one woman SWAT team, who would shake up the Minnesota Department of Transportation."

Pawlenty and Carol Molnau were elected that year and in an apparent first in state history, a lieutenant governor took the lead at a state agency.

We've known for many years that the department has been underfunded and we don't have an advocate at the top.

In the five years that have followed, Democrats in the Senate and Molnau have been at odds over the best approach to pay for road and bridge projects. She has even disagreed with her boss over some things, like funding for the Northstar Commuter Rail Line.

The I-35W bridge collapse has put Molnau and her agency at center stage. Among other things, the incident has resurrected the debate over whether the state is investing enough in its transportation infrastructure.

Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing and chairman of the Transportation Committee, says he no longer has confidence in Molnau as commissioner.

"This is a problem that we've had with having an elected officer serving as a commissioner," Murphy says. "Commissioners are supposed to be advocates for their department. We've known for many years that the department has been underfunded and we don't have an advocate at the top."

Murphy stopped short of calling for Molnau to resign.

This isn't the first time he's criticized Molnau. In a procedural gesture that didn't prevent her from serving as commissioner, Murphy refused to bring up her confirmation in committee this year. He said the votes weren't there to confirm her.

Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, wouldn't single out Molnau when asked about the commissioner. Instead, he said there "needs to be some enhancement" with leadership at MnDOT.

"I think that's the type of thing that we will be looking at here and we will want to make sure that we have the right people in the right places to rebuild this bridge and also to give us the correct information related to the rest of the infrastructure in the transportation system in Minnesota," he said.

The tension between DFLers in the Legislature and Molnau stems from a fierce debate over the best way to fund transportation projects. The governor and Molnau have opposed a gas tax increase, even as some Republicans and business leaders have become advocates. Pawlenty vetoed two transportation packages that included a gas tax increase in the past three years.

Molnau even criticized it last Friday - the same day Pawlenty said publicly that he was willing to accept a gas tax increase in light of the bridge collapse. The two later said there was miscommunication on the matter.

When asked about Molnau's role as transportation commissioner, Gov. Pawlenty said he still has confidence in her.

"I think she's done a good job," he said. "Anyone who jumps to conclusions about what with respect to this bridge without awaiting outcome to the NTSB investigation I think should be cautious. We don't even know what happened here yet."

Molnau was in China when the bridge collapsed last week. She cut the trip short and made her first public appearance at a Friday news conference. At that time, Molnau defended her agency in light of reports that questioned whether a lack of money played a role in the department's decision on maintaining the bridge. Engineers chose to increase the number of inspections on the bridge rather than add steel plates to the bridge, as one study recommended.

At a Monday news conference, Molnau said she would not resign, and continued to defend herself and her department.

"The confidence that we have in ourselves and our employees including the leadership at MnDOT, is the fact that we are recognized nationally and internationally as top notch," she said. "We do lead the country in a lot of areas as it relates to transportation and this leadership has carried MnDOT through that and continued that process so I don't know exactly what their concerns are, but I sure would like to meet with them and listen to their concerns."

It's not clear whether DFLers in control of the Legislature are interested in a dialogue with Molnau. Sen. Murphy said the focus should be on the recovery efforts.