McCain's bridge remarks draw bipartisan criticism

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

In January, Gov. Pawlenty criticized Democrats and others who were looking to play politics with the bridge collapse.

"Since the bridge collapse, I have encouraged politicians and members of the media not to make judgments about the cause of collapse until the NTSB investigation is complete," Pawlenty said at the time. "Unfortunately, my suggestion was not widely followed."

One who appears not to have heeded those words is Pawlenty's choice for president, Arizona Sen. John McCain. While campaigning in Pennsylvania Wednesday, McCain said the Minneapolis bridge collapsed because too much money was targeted to unnecessary federal earmarks.

John McCain
Republican presidential candidate John McCain said this week the I-35W bridge collapsed because of wasteful federal spending. Minnesota politicians of both parties are criticizing those comments.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

"The bridge in Minneapolis didn't collapse because there wasn't enough money," he said. "The bridge in Minneapolis collapsed because so much money was spent on wasteful, unnecessary pork-barrel projects."

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This wasn't the first time McCain made comments regarding the bridge collapse. The New York Times reported a similar statement on Aug. 4, 2007, just three days after the disaster killed 13 people and injured more than 100.

A spokesman for McCain's campaign said Thursday that McCain stands by the statement -- and went even farther. The campaign criticized Democrat Barack Obama for bringing up the Minneapolis bridge while criticizing McCain's gas tax holiday proposal.

Pawlenty, who has been mentioned as a possible McCain running mate, said that McCain is entitled to his opinion but shouldn't leap to conclusions as to why the bridge collapsed.

Pawlenty outlines bonding plan
Gov. Tim Pawlenty is warning against rushing to judgment on the collapse of the I-35W bridge.
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

"I think he's making the general statement that Congress has underserved the country by doing pork-barrel spending and earmarking in transportation projects, and I agree with that. I strongly agree with that," Pawlenty said today. "He suggested that perhaps other things could have been better had they not done that, I agree with that too."

"He may not be aware of all of the details of the NTSB's work," said Pawlenty, "and I think once he learns of that, he'll incorporate that into his thinking."

The National Transportation Safety Board has not released its final report as to why the bridge fell, but said a design flaw and construction weight are the leading theories.

Pawlenty said he placed a call to McCain's campaign to discuss the issue.

"My belief is that my friend and colleague is simply mistaken."

Another Republican was more critical.

"My belief is that my friend and colleague is simply mistaken," said Republican Sen. Norm Coleman.

Coleman was criticized when an outside group ran ads thanking him for his work securing bridge funding. He said it's OK to discuss the bridge in a political setting, but Coleman said McCain should reserve judgment as to why the bridge collapsed.

"The bridge didn't collapse because there wasn't enough money," Coleman said. "We've got some preliminary reports. Let's get the final report. It appears there were some structural deficiencies that caused the collapse of the bridge."

Several Democrats were also quick to criticize McCain's comments. Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, who supports Obama for president, said McCain's comments were inappropriate.

Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, said McCain owes the state of Minnesota an apology. Murphy, who raised concerns about the NTSB investigation in the past, said McCain's comments were ridiculous.

"In no way, shape or form does it look like it's been a lack of resources," Murphy said. "Now, there may be have been some judgment calls along the way that may have precipitated the collapse of the 35W bridge, but we don't know that, and we certainly can't put our finger on the lack of money."

DFL Rep. Jim Oberstar also criticized McCain's comments. Oberstar, who chairs the U.S. House Transportation Committee, said McCain either didn't bother to check his facts, or he knew the facts and ignored them to make a political point.