NTSB divided over public hearing on I-35W bridge collapse

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The NTSB holds public hearings for several reasons - to educate the public, make the board's investigation transparent and to gather information from outside experts. The investigative staff recommends whether to hold one and the board votes on their recommendation. In this instance, the majority of the NTSB board sided with staff and voted against a hearing.

The NTSB holds public hearings for several reasons - to educate the public, make the board's investigation transparent and to gather information from outside experts.

The investigative staff recommends whether to hold one and the board votes on their recommendation.

Bridge deck
A collapsed portion of the I-35W bridge deck.
National Transportation Safety Board

In this instance, the majority of the NTSB board sided with staff and voted against a hearing.

Minnesota Public Radio News requested a copy of documents related to the board's decision and the staff's position.

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Late Tuesday night the NTSB released the statement explaining the board's majority position against the public hearing.

In it the three members said a public hearing is just one means of keeping the public informed. They also wrote that speed was critical. A public hearing, they argued, would slow the process down and would not provide investigators with the information they need.

Minnesota Public Radio News also acquired a copy of an internal memo written by the two NTSB board members who wanted to hold a public hearing.

Member Kathryn Higgins co-authored the memo with Member Deborah Hersman. Higgins said the I-35W disaster has national relevance.

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"This was, in terms of fatalities, the second worst accident and the worst in terms of injuries and number of vehicles involved. Hearings are valuable not only to inform the investigation, but also to inform the public and assure them that all the questions they have are being fully addressed by the board," she said.

NTSB staff cited the political fight in Minnesota over the bridge collapse, Higgins said, and they were worried that delaying the agency's investigation by holding a hearing would cause the agency to lose some control of the investigation to the state. The NTSB staff was also concerned about their limited resources.

"My feeling about that, is yes, we have scarce resources, but this is too important an accident," said Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn.

Oberstar chairs the House Transportation Committee that oversees the work of the NTSB. By not holding a hearing the NTSB is putting its reputation as independent and fair at risk, he said.

"Not to have a public hearing on an issue of this magnitude raises questions about why about the board's purpose, about the integrity of their process and that is troubling. Those questions should not arise," Oberstar said.

Oberstar laid the decision on the public hearing at the feet of NTSB Chairman Mark Rosenker.

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"I think a more enlightened and open leadership is needed at the NTSB. This is really a test case of that openness and willingness to be candid with the public," Oberstar said.

At least three former board members have also called for a public hearing into the bridge collapse. Concerns that the state of Minnesota might overtake the investigation are ridiculous, says Bob Francis, who sat on the board from 1995 until 1999.

"The state of Minnesota is going to come out with some sort of a report? So what? They've got an axe to grind. Ultimately, the gold standard report that will come out on this regardless of who else tries to do an investigation is going to be the NTSB. Another argument they use is that it will take longer. Okay. It will take longer," he said.

The NTSB board hasn't held a public hearing since 2006. That year it also voted not to hold a hearing on the ComAir passenger plane crash in Kentucky. Forty-nine people died in that accident and the board was criticized for its decision against a public hearing.

While it's common for board members to disagree on whether to hold a hearing, this sort of attention only hurts the investigation, according to former board member John Goglia, who served on the board for nine years.

"The credibility of the board is diminished whenever they have this sort of criticism for not doing their job. It's that simple," he says.

In their dissent, board members Higgins and Hersman stated that holding a public hearing into the 35W bridge collapse would enhance the credibility of the NTSB's work. A public hearing on the Minneapolis bridge disaster would also be significant for the nation, they wrote.

"This is one of the rare accident investigations the Board has undertaken that has involved the total collapse of a major interstate highway bridge. Given the number of interstate bridges that exist in this country, the age of those bridges, and the use of those bridges, there is a significant need to explore whether this accident is likely to remain rare in the future."

Officials from MnDOT and the governor's office say the NTSB didn't seek their opinions on a public hearing.