The Corner

Re: Pawlenty’s Pledge: ‘Change . . . for the Better’

Pawlenty’s first order of business should be to explain to the American public what he learned from the collapse of the I-35W bridge into the Mississippi in 2007. The bridge fell down at the end of Pawlenty’s first four years as the ultimate person in charge of the state’s infrastructure.

Barry LePatner, a top construction lawyer, wrote about the bridge failure in his 2010 book, Too Big to Fall

‘No, we would never do that because of money,’ said a [Minnesota Department of Transportation] engineer … when asked if financial constraints had played a role in the decision not to reinforce steel members deemed particularly susceptible to cracking.

Yet there should be no doubt that inadequate funding was a key factor in MN/DOT’s decisions not only to call off the planned retrofitting of the bridge but also to forgo nondestructive testing that would have revealed the full extent of fatigue cracking on the bridge. And it was inadequate resources for remediation that led to the decision to put off until 2022 the deck replacement that would have added redundancy to the bridge. Moreover, it was not until after the I-35W Bridge fell into the Mississippi and killed 13 people that Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty gave up his previously unshakable opposition to raising the state’s gasoline tax, thus providing needed revenues for the financial starved MN/DOT.

This issue will undoubtedly come up in Pawlenty’s campaign for president (maybe it just did!). Pawlenty should answer sooner rather than later:

  • Does he agree with LePatner’s assessment? (LePatner has previously helped write such potboilers as Structural and Foundational Failures: A Casebook for Architects, Engineers, and Lawyers.)

  • Does the former governor think that the bridge collapse was preventable, or should Americans expect such tragedies to occur without warning from time to time?

  • If the collapse was preventable, who or what should have prevented it? 

  • Does Pawlenty wish that he had done something differently, as governor, in terms of prioritizing spending in the state budget to make money for infrastructure, and then making sure that the infrastructure money was spent well?

  • Was the I-35 tragedy a wake-up call for Pawlenty to pay more attention to aging infrastructure in his state? If so, how did he wring something positive out of the disaster? 

  • What are Pawlenty’s suggestions to Congress on a new transportation-funding bill?

— Nicole Gelinas is a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal

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