Lawmakers to get first look at their own 35W bridge probe

Marked cars
Cars that were traveling on the I-35W bridge when it collapsed were marked by law enforcement officials.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

(AP) - Within hours of the Minneapolis bridge collapse, the rush to investigate was on. The federal government and Gov. Tim Pawlenty's administration started their own probes. State legislators soon followed.

Now the Legislature is waiting for its first report on the bridge's failure, the product of a law firm it hired to delve into the bridge's 40-year history. Members of the Joint Committee to Investigate the Bridge Collapse haven't gotten the report yet, but some say it might not reveal anything worrying.

When lawmakers first publicly proposed hiring their investigator, they set out a schedule with initial findings due Monday.

Damaged bridge
The damaged structure of the I-35W bridge after it collapsed. Federal investigators have said a design flaw in the bridge's gusset plates was the major factor in its collapse.
Photo courtesy of MnDOT

But somewhere along the way -- in private -- the timetable was changed. The first report is now due May 1, said Sen. Steve Murphy, one of the panel's two chairmen.

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Interviewed Wednesday about the upcoming report, Murphy didn't mention the changed timeline. He did so only after The Associated Press reported that the first deadline was nearing.

Murphy said he hopes the report will exonerate the Minnesota Department of Transportation. The panel - not the investigator - is controlling its release so lawmakers will be the first to see the findings.

"They may find nothing - nothing that needs further investigation," said Murphy, DFL-Red Wing.

Top Democrats in the House and Senate committed up to $500,000 out of their own budgets for the report, and the contract went to the Minneapolis law firm of Gray Plant Mooty. The investigation is focusing on decisions about the Interstate 35W bridge going back to its construction in the 1960s.

The Aug. 1 bridge collapse killed 13 people and injured 145.

Sen. Steve Murphy
Sen. Steve Murphy co-chairs the Joint Committee to Investigate the Bridge Collapse, which expects to get its first look next week at an initial report on the bridge collapse.
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

The National Transportation Safety Board is trying to pinpoint the collapse's cause, with help from a Chicago consulting company hired by the state Transportation Department for $2 million.

A separate analysis of transportation spending patterns from the Legislative Auditor concluded last month that Minnesota roads suffered from a focus on new lanes and more should be spent on bridge inspections and maintenance.

Rep. Frank Hornstein, a member of the bridge panel, said the Legislature's probe will not duplicate the federal search for a cause or the auditor's broader look at spending decisions.

One question he hopes it will answer is whether financial pressures discouraged action within the Transportation Department.

"We're looking at operations and decision-making within MnDOT with a very specific goal of making sure that this kind of thing never, ever, ever happens again," said Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis.

Still, one panel member said financial pressure of another kind could affect the investigation. If there are no promising leads to follow, Rep. Neil Peterson said he would expect legislative leaders to stop spending money on the investigation, even though their original plan called for two more reports.

"The leadership in both the Senate and the House committed a big chunk of their operating budgets," said Peterson, R-Bloomington. "They're going to be pretty judicious about their budgets."

Murphy said follow-up reports wouldn't be needed if the initial findings turn up nothing.

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)