Two days after testifying before a Congressional committee investigating bridge safety, a state inspector defended his criticism of MnDOT officials and said he was speaking out on behalf of co-workers who cannot because they fear retaliation.
At the request of Minnesota Congressman James Oberstar, Bart Andersen testified Tuesday before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Highways and Transit. He told lawmakers that “MnDOT doesn’t have enough full-time bridge inspectors to keep motorists safe. It’s impossible for 77 inspectors to check 14,000 bridges throughout Minnesota while performing all of the other tasks that are part of the job.”
Andersen said the “Department of Transportation is broken and our transportation system is broken” and that MnDOT “lacks the resources and manpower it needs to maintain its transportation infrastructure.” As a result, he said, “driving is now dangerous.”
MnDOT officials disputed Andersen’s statements and said his facts were wrong. The number of bridge inspectors is actually 200, Bob McFarlin, assistant to Transportation Commissioner Carol Molnau, told the Associated Press.
At a packed news conference Thursday afternoon, Andersen stood by his testimony. He was joined by Bob Hiliker, AFSCME Council 5 liaison to MnDOT, and Eliot Seide, AFSCME Council 5 director, who said the department’s recent statements don’t jibe with its own documentation.
For example, in the Twin Cities metro area, the number of bridge inspection crews has dropped from six crews involving a total of 36 people to five crews involving a total of 27, Hiliker said. Just days before the I-35W bridge collapsed over the Mississippi River in downtown Minneapolis, MnDOT proposed reducing the number of crews to four, he said.
MnDOT maintains that many of the 14,000 bridges Andersen cited are the responsibility of local authorities, but Hiliker said many local communities lack the staff and expertise and it falls to the state to conduct inspections.
The war of words over statistics is emblematic of a bigger problem – a lack of communication between the Pawlenty administration and MnDOT employees, Seide said.
Previous administrations, including Democrat Rudy Perpich, Republicans Al Quie and Arne Carlson and Independent Jesse Ventura, held regular meetings with MnDOT workers and their union, AFSCME, Seide said.
“In the time of this administration, we haven’t had any meetings to work cooperatively to get the job done,” he said.
Hiliker said he regularly met with previous transportation commissioners, but “I have never been invited to a meeting with this commissioner – period” despite repeated requests.
Morale at the department is at an all-time low, Seide said. “Our members have told us . . . they’re scared to speak up . . . for fear of retaliation. . . That is the perception of MnDOT’s line employees. That is not the way to have a safe system.”
When Oberstar requested a bridge inspector testify at the federal hearing in Washington, Andersen was tapped because he will soon be leaving the state to become a full-time union representative for AFSCME, Seide said.
For years, AFSCME has championed greater funding for transportation projects and staff, most recently during the 2007 legislative session. In 2005 when the Pawlenty administration and state Legislature failed to reach a budget agreement, the union challenged Pawlenty’s decision to shut down bridge inspections as a nonessential service.