Legislature launches its own bridge probe

Bent bridge
Wreckage of the I-35W bridge in downtown Minneapolis.
MPR Photo/William Wilcoxen

Members of a joint bridge investigation committee say they hired Gray Plant Mooty to serve as special counsel. Sen. Dick Cohen, DFL-St. Paul said the investigation will focus on why the 35W bridge collapsed and how to prevent future transportation problems.

Cohen said state lawmakers need to react to the bridge collapse in the next legislative session and can't wait until other investigations are finished.

"You want to get to the answers to the questions, and you want to get the answers as quickly as possible," he said. "I'm not sure I've heard of getting the answers as quickly as possible other than what is being proposed here."

This is at least the fifth investigation in the wake of the bridge collapse. A private firm is looking into the state's bridge inspection program. The Office of Legislative Auditor is looking into MnDOT and its expenses. Several law firms are also looking into the collapse and may pursue legal action.

Meanwhile, the public is waiting for the lead investigative agency, The National Transportation Safety Board or NTSB, to say why the bridge collapsed.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation is also paying a Chicago-based firm $2 million to look into the collapse. Gov. Pawlenty said the firm would provide another set of eyes on the investigation. It was later revealed the firm is working with the NTSB.

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It's that relationship that concerns Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, chair of the The Joint Legislative Committee on the I-35W Bridge Collapse.

Sen. Steve Murphy
Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, pushed for the Legislature to hire an outside firm to help investigate the 35W bridge collapse.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

He said he's skeptical that the NTSB will provide an unbiased look at the bridge collapse, since the firm paid by MnDOT is working with the federal agency.

"The Lt. Gov. has her people working side-by- side inside the offices of the NTSB," he said. "I don't know and can't find documentation from the NTSB's Web site where this has ever happened before."

Murphy, who also chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, has been at odds with Lt. Gov. and transportation Commissioner Carol Molnau for several years. Molnau has long opposed a gas tax increase. Murphy says a gas tax increase is needed for more road and bridge construction and increased maintenance. Murphy has called on Molnau to resign and said he would move to have the Senate effectively fire her if she doesn't quit.

"It simply looks to me like we're in a political witchhunt," said Sen. Dave Senjem, R-Rochester. He said Murphy's comments regarding the NTSB investigation are unwarranted.

Republican Sen. David Senjem
Senate Minority Leader David Senjem, R-Rochester, accused Democratic lawmakers of supporting a "political witchhunt" by hiring an outside law firm to probe the cause of the 35W bridge collapse.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

"I'm confident that this agency has to have so much integrity in order for it to operate," he said. "It can't afford to go down anything other than straight lines."

Senjem said the latest investigation duplicates other work and is a waste of taxpayer money. Pawlenty echoed those comments.

"When you have the NTSB doing this, who are the world renowned experts in it, and you have a firm already working on it, that's a world renowned expert on it, and you have the Legislative Auditor on it, I'm not sure what the Legislature's motives would be other than to try to make political hay out of a tragic situation," the governor said. "I would hope they don't do that but it seems that's what they are intent on doing."

The legislative committee is expected to release its initial report in March, and then a second report in September. No date has been scheduled for its final report.