Bridge investigation deserves transparency


When a busy interstate highway bridge falls down, the public is entitled to a straightforward explanation of what went wrong, untainted by political considerations. Unfortunately, the clearly partisan wrangling over the federal investigation of the deadly collapse of the I-35W span indicates that may not be the case this time.

Recently, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) split along party lines over whether to hold a public hearing as part of its probe. The board’s Republican majority prevailed to block a hearing, drawing strong criticism from Democrats in Congress and on the board.

Why is this an issue? To Democratic board members Deborah A.P. Hersman and Kathryn O’Leary Higgins, forgoing a hearing means “abandoning our important duty to educate and reassure the traveling public of an independent, transparent, credible investigation after a tragic accident of national scope.”

On the other side, the NTSB staff and its board chair argue that a public hearing would unnecessarily delay the investigation and the issuance of recommendations to improve bridge safety nationwide. They also contend that a hearing would divert scarce staff resources without enhancing the probe.

In NTSB practice, a public hearing is NOT a free-for-all for anyone who wants to testify. Instead, it is an open-door proceeding in which board members hear from and may question technical experts of their own choosing. Without a hearing, the investigation may proceed in secret until its findings are published. For some time, in fact, the NTSB denied even members of Congress access to many documents associated with the probe until finally posting its public docket on the Web in mid-March.

The earlier secrecy heightened suspicions of bias already raised when the administration of Gov. Tim Pawlenty, within hours of the bridge collapse, hastily hired an engineering consulting firm for $2 million to “assist” the NTSB investigation. Its unusual role in the probe has led opponents of a public hearing to argue that delaying the NTSB’s work would marginalize its efforts while the consultants went ahead alone and perhaps independently published their own findings.

But Hersman and O’Leary Higgins noted that the NTSB is conducting “the only truly independent investigation of this accident,” adding: “If we do a thorough, conscientious job that includes a public hearing with participation from the parties … the public will respect and support that effort and the final product.”

The pair also said that “a political debate raging in Minnesota about the maintenance this particular bridge received in its 40-year history” should not be part of a hearing but “presents an even more compelling reason to have a public hearing and provide enough transparency to assure the public that our independent investigation transcends local arguments and politics.”

Added Minnesota U.S. Rep. James Oberstar, the House transportation chair: “The board’s decision to not hold a public hearing on this accident was inexplicable. If the sudden collapse of an interstate highway bridge, and the resulting deaths of 13 individuals, does not merit a public hearing, then what type of accident does?”

As this controversy was developing, NTSB Chairman Mark Rosenker, who has been a Republican campaign operative since 1972, announced in January that the probe’s preliminary findings indicated that an original design flaw of too-thin structural connections known as “gusset plates” caused the bridge failure. Maintenance of the bridge had nothing to do with it, Rosenker suggested, adding in nationally televised news interviews that no one could have detected the problem before the disaster.

He has since backed off from those statements. As he attempted to defend the Bush administration’s proposed cut in NTSB funding for 2009 before a congressional subcommittee last month – the dissenting board members said the agency should have more resources to achieve its mission, not less — Rosenker demurred: “I’m not going to tell you what happened to that bridge.”

His earlier analysis also has run into a couple of annoying glitches:

1) Photos of 35W bridge gusset plates taken in 2003 – four years before the collapse — released by the NTSB show apparent bending, although no other documentation of that condition or efforts to correct it has emerged from the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

2) Critics have pointed to the sagging of an Interstate 90 river bridge in Ohio in 1996 that caused its closure for five months and was repaired by replacing buckled gusset plates with new ones nearly twice as thick. The gusset failure and repair project were prominently described in the professional journal Civil Engineering, a key information resource for bridge engineers worldwide. The Ohio bridge was built in 1960 with the same fracture-critical, steel-truss design as the 35W span in Minneapolis – and 13,000 other bridges across the nation.

Yes, a public hearing touching on points such as these could focus more embarrassing attention and news coverage on MnDOT, which has faced no shortage of controversy on Pawlenty’s watch. But that’s no reason to investigate the bridge tragedy in haste and secrecy.

Minnesotans, and all Americans, deserve a full, fair and open probe of the worst U.S. bridge disaster in 40 years, one that lets the chips fall where they may.