A bridge too far


It’s been three years since the I-35W bridge fell down. The new bridge has been up for nearly two years, and everyone seems to have forgotten there was a problem. It was fixed, after all, and the new bridge has an amazing array of technological safeguards built into it to prevent the collapse.

All is well, yes? I don’t think so. The fact that we are in the middle of a governor’s election and this is not a major issue – indeed, it seems like ancient history – I take as adequate proof that we are doomed.

After the bridge collapsed, the law firm of Gray, Plant and Mooty was retained to study how such a thing could possibly happen. Their key findings were:

  • MnDOT policies were not followed in critical respects;

  • Decision-making responsibility was diffused and unclear;

  • The flow of information was informal and incomplete;

  • Expert advice was not effectively utilized;

  • Financial consideration may have adversely influenced decision-making; and

  • Organizational structure did not adequately address bridge conditions and safety.

In short, in the maze of outsourced responsibilities that make up MnDOT there was no one actually watching what was going on. We spent a lot of money for consultants who filed neat reports in great thick binders that went onto the shelf largely unread. One of those reports included a picture of a gusset plate bent nearly into the letter “C,” but no one appears to have noticed.

There were a few changes at MnDOT since this occurred, but there is no reason to believe that the problems of outsourced government stop at this one state agency. Cost cutting has led many agencies to shed workers and send their daily grind out to contractors. Are they in the same shape as MnDOT? Has MnDOT really reformed itself based on the GPM report? No one will tell us.

What we do have are a lot of gadgets built into the new bridge. Unsaid in all the fawning over this new structure is that if no one is watching or maintaining the fancy new gizmos, they will fail as surely as the old bridge did.

This is exactly the kind of problem we run into constantly in our world. Our faith in technology is so strong that there is a general belief that tremendous organizational dysfunction can supposedly be cured by a few new toys and a deep desire to look the other way. It makes no sense when viewed from a strong half-step back, but everyone appears to be quite happy with it.

I’m just cynical enough to understand that a government agency which is not prodded and pushed will continue to do things exactly as they always have done. What amazes me is that the press and the public have been so eager to put the death and chaos behind us that we apparently have bought into this. It’s also very consistent with how our society has believed many of our problems can be solved – give us more tech toys and we’ll never have to worry about “other people” again!

The lack of outrage, or at least a stern focus on the progress of correcting the underlying problems, shows how shallow we have become. If it happens at MnDOT it can, and does, happen in places that are far less likely to cause death.

Those of us who want to see our government reform at all levels need only to look at the public response to the worst case scenario to see how likely real progress is. It’s far too easy to ignore organizational problems even when they become obvious. That tells me that things are going to get a lot worse before they have any chance of getting better.