35W Bridge collapse and the culture of MNDOT

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I was in Minneapolis on August 1, 2007.

I went to dinner with my daughters and their families. We sat down and looked at the television above our table. A news helicopter flew over a fallen bridge. Suddenly my daughter said, “That is Minneapolis.” We realized it was the 35W Bridge. We watched in stunned silence.

Opinion: 35W Bridge collapse and the culture of MNDOT

I thought of Matt, my stepson. He worked in downtown Minneapolis and sometimes took that bridge home at night. I called him and left a voicemail: “Let us know you are okay.” I felt scared.

I called Melanie, my wife, home in Moorhead. I told her what happened. The next two hours, until she heard from her son, were the worst of her life. She didn’t know if her boy was alive or dead. Finally he called; he was okay. He took another route home, went jogging, and saw the immediate aftermath of the bridge collapse. Ours is one of thousands of stories—how fortunate we felt.

Inspection reports show a bridge known to be at risk for many years.

My friend and colleague Diane Olson, Ph.D. was head of the Employee Assistance program at the Minnesota Department of Transportation (approximately 1999-2000) after being an independent psychologist and consultant for them for years.

Olson hated how the Human Resources Department of MNDOT was led. She told me of a dehumanized and dysfunctional management that abused people routinely. She so wanted the managers to see the impact their actions had on others. Olson, not outwardly emotional, cried as she told stories of how the executives hurt others in passive/aggressive and cowardly ways.

She was humiliated and marginalized as she held up the mirror to the organization. Another psychologist and co-worker said, “They stripped her of her professionalism.”

Shortly before she was hospitalized for aggressive and terminal cancer (August 2000), Diane called me and said, “I feel awful. I don’t know if I am sick or if I am just so depressed at work.” It turned out she was both.

As she lay on her deathbed, she said over and over again, “I am so relieved that I don’t have to go back to MNDOT.”

In 2003 the Minneapolis Star Tribune published a series of investigative articles about MNDOT that covered many years and reflected Diane’s experiences. The articles described an organization torn between pressures to get roads built and between laws, regulations, and regulators, which slow MNDOT down.

The newspaper discovered laws violated, mismanagement, rules broken, conflicts of interest, and excessive and questionable consultant fees and practices much to the detriment of women, minorities, the disabled, and the taxpayers of Minnesota. Paranoid managers shifted blame, hid their actions, smeared their critics, investigated their opponents, destroyed public documents, manipulated public opinion, and lied to protect themselves.

I know about cultures and how hard they are to change. I wonder if the MNDOT culture changed since 2003. I suspect it has not.

My question for investigators is: “How did the culture at MNDOT impact the inspection and decision-making processes when risks to I-35W were uncovered?

Would an engineer have the courage to call for a bridge shut-down in the MNDOT culture? What drove decisions—money, safety, or politics? What pressures were put on people—their work and their reports? Is telling the truth welcomed at MNDOT? What would have happened to an engineer who called for a bridge shut down?

We need to know the answers to these questions.