Pawlenty and the Bridge

by Nicole Gelinas

Looks like former governor Pawlenty has plenty of defenders as far as the bridge is concerned

Let me take on a few objections to my post, ranked from the least substantive comments to the most. 

My original post was “way below the belt.”  I kept the post neutral, assigning no praise or blame to Pawlenty. (And no, this wasn’t some sort of clever rhetorical trick — if I have an opinion, I’ll offer it, as is fairly clear.)

It is factually indisputable that when the I-35W bridge collapsed, then-Gov. Pawlenty had been in charge for four years. Therefore, if one believes in political accountability in general, when it came to state-maintained infrastructure, the buck stopped with him. 

I pointed this out not because I was looking for an underhanded way of implying that Pawlenty must have deliberately sat around and waited for the bridge to collapse to make some sort of ideological point.

Rather, I figure that it must weigh heavily on a person to have been in charge when such a tragedy occurred. Pawlenty must have taken away some lessons from this catastrophic infrastructure failure.

What are these lessons? As he is now running for president, I’m curious to hear the long version, in the governor’s own words, of what happened and why, as well as any lessons that the governor took away from the disaster and would apply to the rest of the nation’s infrastructure. 

Maybe Pawlenty should someday talk about the bridge, but it certainly should not be his “first order of business.”  Since Pawlenty is running on his experience as governor of Minnesota, it seems fair to ask him, right now, about the lessons he took away from this event, which must be one of the top three important things that happened in Minnesota during Pawlenty’s tenure. 

Barry LePatner is a “trial lawyer” who stands to make a ton of money from blaming someone with “deep pockets” (i.e. the state of Minnesota) for the bridge collapse. Another point of indisputable fact: LePatner is not a trial lawyer (it’s odd that more than one commenter would think that all lawyers are trial lawyers). LePatner advises developers, lenders, and the like on large, complex construction projects, including infrastructure. His firm has advised clients that include Con Edison, the former Daimler Chrysler, Goldman Sachs, Starwood Hotels, and Gehry Partners. Governing magazine has called him a “guru of construction industry reform.”

I say this not to go out of my way to vouch for LePatner. I don’t agree with everything LePatner writes. I say it, rather, because LePatner has the objective credentials to be taken seriously on this topic by the folks who are inevitably doing new research on Pawlenty. Indeed,, a project of the St. Petersburg Times, cites LePatner as an “outside expert” who “believe[s] the [federal National Transportation Safety Board] report [on the Minnesota bridge] underplays actions by state officials that could have contributed to the collapse.”

A debate moderator, then, would perfectly within the realm of reason to cite LePatner’s take on the bridge collapse and ask for a response from Pawlenty, which is exactly what I did in my post.

“Considering the collapse was based on a design flaw that wasn’t fully apparent until after I-35 fell, Pawlenty has nothing to explain and certainly nothing to apologize for on this matter.” I did not demand an apology from Pawlenty, nor do I now.

On the cause of the bridge’s collapse, the NTSB has said the following:

[T]he probable cause of the collapse … was the inadequate load capacity, due to a design error by Sverdrup & Parcel and Associates, Inc., of the gusset plates at the U10 nodes, which failed under a combination of (1) substantial increases in the weight of the bridge, which resulted from previous bridge modifications, and (2) the traffic and concentrated construction loads on the bridge on the day of the collapse. Contributing to the design error was the failure of Sverdrup & Parcel’s quality control procedures to ensure that the appropriate main truss gusset plate calculations were performed for the I-35W bridge and the inadequate design review by Federal and State transportation officials. Contributing to the accident was the generally accepted practice among Federal and State transportation officials of giving inadequate attention to gusset plates during inspections for conditions of distortion, such as bowing, and of excluding gusset plates in load rating analyses.

Voters are within their rights to request a fresh “explanation” in newly minted candidate Pawlenty’s words of how he has interpreted this conclusion and how he would apply it elsewhere.

Does the finding of a “design” flaw that dated back to the Sixties, for example, mean that no governor after that era had any chance of preventing the catastrophe? If so, does such a conclusion mean that Americans can expect other long-flawed bridges to fail without warning? If not, why not?

Alternatively, is there something that we can take from Minnesota’s experience under Pawlenty to avoid such tragedies? If so, advice to other governors and national infrastructure leaders would be particularly salient. As structurally deficient, fracture-critical bridges around the nation age, as their traffic loads grow, and, yes, as money for maintenance falls short, design flaws that date back decades become even more important, and state inspection procedures become even more critical.

In sum, I see nothing wrong with the original questions that I posed, particularly the last one: “What are Pawlenty’s suggestions to Congress on a new transportation-funding bill?”

Here’s a person, after all, who has seen the human cost of infrastructure failure up close. So he’s got to have something important to say, and I’m looking forward to hearing it.

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