House speaker says Molnau should 'do the right thing' and go

Carol Molnau
Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau defended MnDOT and her role there as she spoke to reporters in August shortly after the I-35W bridge collapse.
MPR file photo/Elizabeth Stawicki

During a legislative hearing this week on the 35W bridge reconstruction, House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher says she became quite concerned about the management of the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

Kelliher says it was clear to her that Molnau didn't have a good grasp of all the issues that came up during the hearing.

Speaker Kelliher
House Speaker Margaret Kelliher called Wednesday for Carol Molnau to step down as head of MnDOT.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

"I think, frankly, the appropriate thing to do is for the lieutenant governor and commissioner to step down as the commissioner, and sort of do the right thing here and not make the governor go to the next level of that discussion, or make the state Senate do the work to clean up the department," said Kelliher.

Molnau has been under increasing criticism for her agency's response to the bridge collapse, as well as the lack of a long-range transportation funding plan. Some DFL senators promised a vote to fire Molnau in February if she doesn't resign before then.

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Those senators are now participating in a joint House-Senate investigation into the 35W bridge collapse and MnDOT. The bipartisan panel met for the first time Wednesday and agreed to hire a special counsel to help lead its efforts.

Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, the chairman the Senate transportation committee, says he wants to make sure the state's roads and bridges are safe.

"We want to know, were there poor decisions that led to that bridge falling down? Were there poor decisions all across MnDOT that have led to our transportation infrastructure going downhill?" said Murphy.

"There are two games people in Minnesota could play this year. One is fantasy football, and the other is the DFL fantasy disaster blame game. Every disaster that happens is some Republican's fault."

Murphy says the House-Senate panel will not try to duplicate the efforts of the National Transportation Safety Board. Federal investigators from the NTSB have been working since the collapse to determine its cause. In addition, the state hired a private firm to conduct a parallel investigation into the cause of the bridge failure.

The Office of the Legislative Auditor is also taking a separate look into bridge issues. That investigation will update a 1997 report that highlighted a growing number of aging bridges and steel fatigue in the state, and a lack of preventative maintenance by MnDOT.

Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles warned Murphy and other lawmakers that there are limits to what his office will do in response to their requests.

"I was asked to address questions such as whether or not it was appropriate for the lieutenant governor to also be the commissioner of transportation, and the possibility that that had inhibited the governor in some way," said Nobles. "And specifically asked to inquire whether the governor had asked the lieutenant governor to resign as commissioner of transportation. Those questions, I thought, were not appropriately in my purview."

Gov. Pawlenty has said he has no plans to fire Carol Molnau. During a morning news conference, Pawlenty responded to the DFL-led hearings into the department and the bridge collapse.

"I think the Legislature has an oversight role and responsibility. And we're interested in working together with them," said Pawlenty. "When you have a state that goes through this kind of trauma and crisis, it's important, I think, for leaders to step forward and take actions, and use words that are constructive and oriented to finding solutions, rather than bickering and finger-pointing."

But some Republicans have also begun pointing fingers at the Transportation Department. Two GOP senators held a news conference to criticize MnDOT for using a confusing bid process for the new 35W bridge, and revealing too few details about the submitted designs.

But Republican Sen. Ray Vandeveer of Forest Lake blamed decisions by the Legislature, not Molnau. He says she's been the victim of unfair, partisan attacks.

"There are two games people in Minnesota could play this year. One is fantasy football and the other is the DFL fantasy disaster blame game," said Vandeveer. "Every disaster that happens is some Republican's fault."

Vandeveer describes Molnau as a strong leader who has done a lot to reduce waste and protect tax dollars during her time as transportation commissioner.