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MnDOT: One year later

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Transportation commissioner
Transportation Commissioner Tom Sorel, speaking in his office at MnDOT headquarters in St. Paul. He wasn't commissioner when the I-35W bridge fell. He worked for the Federal Highway Administration at the time and was sitting down to dinner in Washington D.C. when the collapse occurred.
MPR photo/Tom Weber

Not even postage stamps could escape the big bridge debate this year in Minnesota.  As part of the state's 150th birthday celebration, the Postal Service issued a Minnesota stamp in May. It captures an impressive photograph of the Mississippi River at Winona, complete with a shot of the Highway 43 bridge.

Two and a half weeks after that stamp debuted, the bridge was closed for safety reasons.

Embarrassing coincidence?  Not necessarily, if you ask Minnesota's new Transportation Commissioner Tom Sorel.

"It's an indication, I hope, to the public that we take this very seriously, and we're concerned for their safety," said Sorel in an interview at his St. Paul office.

35W bridge span
Construction on the replacement I-35W bridge.
MPR Photo/Brandt Williams

That is one major change Minnesotans have seen this year: MnDOT is more willing to close bridges.  

That relates to two commitments Sorel made when he became commissioner in April: Focus on safety and restore public trust.  In theory, one will beget the other.

"As I travel the state, at various meetings with people involved in the community and the public, they're talking about transportation, which I don't know that they always did," added Sorel.

But MnDOT has also changed many of its day-to-day operations that most Minnesotans never notice:\

- Inspections have more documentation.

MnDOT Commissioner Carol Molnau
Former MnDOT Transportation Commissioner Carol Molnau. Molnau was not confirmed the Minnesota Senate, and she succeeded by Tom Sorrel.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

- There are more limits on how much construction equipment can be on a bridge.

- MnDOT is looking to hire more inspectors.  

But most notable is that term few people knew before the collapse: gusset plates.

Like the 'hanging chad' and 'IED' before it, 'gusset plates' entered Minnesotans' vocabulary with a force in January, when the National Transportation Safety Board said the plates were too thin, which likely helped cause the collapse.  The plates hold steel beams together.

Minnesota's bridge engineer Dan Dorgan has noted that not even computer models would test for weak gusset plates, because they were always assumed to be the strongest part of a bridge.

House Minority Leader Marty Seifert
House Minority Leader Marty Seifert.
MPR Photo/Laura McCallum

States didn't give gussets more than a cursory look before the collapse, but now they get special attention. Gussets are why three more bridges have been closed this year in Duluth, St. Cloud and Winona.

"We were safe before this tragedy," noted Bev Farraher, a MnDOT maintenance engineer, while on Minnesota Public Radio's "Midday" program.  "We are safe now. We are trying to ensure that safety in more ways than ever before."

Any discussion of MnDOT, though, also has to include the Minnesota Legislature.  Lawmakers overrode a governor's veto this year to raise the gas tax and license fees to fund more construction.

That new money means replacements can move up for many bridges, including the Hastings bridge, the Lafayette bridge in St. Paul and the closed Desoto bridge in St. Cloud.

But that tax hike won't end calls for more money.

One figure often thrown around by supporters of more funding is that the higher gas tax will only supply a fourth of the money Minnesota truly needs for roads and bridges.

The U.S. House passed legislation last week that would authorize an additional $1 billion next year for bridges across the country. However, a final report in January from a presidential commission concluded the country needs to spend at least $225 billion a year, every year, for the next 50 years to build a competitive transportation system.

That will keep the debate open on how to pay for it.  But House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, R-Marshall,  says additional funding needs to come from sources other than new or higher taxes.

"Any kind of shortfall in terms of transportation, I think, is going to have to come from reprioitization or bonding.," he said.  "Even the Democrats, I think, are saying 'how much is enough' in terms of gas tax."

Six Republicans sided with Democrats in supporting the tax hike override.  They ended up outcasts, chided by their own party and, in some cases, losers in their bid for party endorsement this spring.   But it's not just money being debating, it's policy, too.

"Traditionally the Minnesota legislature has been very deferential to MnDOT in terms of oversight," noted State Representative Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park.

"But given the bridge collapse, this is a time when the public is looking for a little more scrutiny," said Hortman.

Hortman was one of five DFL lawmakers who announced plans this week to push for legislation next year that aims to improve bridge safety by, among other things, requiring more regular inspections.

The nation's governors met a few weeks ago in Philadelphia to, among other things, watch Pennsylvania's Governor Ed Rendell take over as chairman of the National Governors Association.

In his speech to the governors, he said it's not the sexiest of issues, but he's going to focus his year as chairman on infrastructure.