Elected officials connect with neighborhoods immediately affected by disaster


Recovery, transportation and ongoing investigation discussed

In the wake of the tragedy that occurred Aug. 1 in the heart of the city representatives and elected officials from the local, state and national levels met with residents and business owners from the neighborhoods — especially Bridge-area neighborhoods — surrounding the collapsed I-35W bridge to discuss the immediate and long-term impacts of the catastrophe.

Officials and their constituents focused on short- and long-term transportation needs; the ongoing recovery effort and investigation; and communication between the various government agencies, organizations, neighborhood representatives, the media and the public.

Sen. Larry Pogemiller led the meeting, and he credited Rep. Diane Loeffler and Ward 3 Council Member Diane Hofstede with calling for the officials and government agencies to connect with neighborhood stakeholders.

Marcy-Holmes resident Eric Nauman pointed out that the congregation of officials from so many levels and agencies of government was “unique,” and he said the neighborhoods appreciate the more unified communication.

Scene of recovery effort very dangerous

“We’re proceeding with caution,” said Hofstede, who, like others assembled at the Nicollet Island Inn, pointed to the many heroes of the past few days. “We still have bodies in river and strong currents,” she said of the ongoing recovery effort. “It’s a difficult situation.”

Assistant Chief Sharon Lubinski of the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) gave more details about the recovery effort, which will take much longer than expected, she said. “It’s really dangerous [for the divers] down there,” she said. “We don’t want to shortcut things so that we lose another life.” She knew of no injuries sustained in the rescue effort yet, she reported.

Pogemiller shared some of what he knows about the ongoing recovery effort, saying there is still some information that has not been made public. The official number of fatalities dropped from seven to four, he said, because recovery workers were unable to remove several known dead from the wreckage. “They know there are bodies underneath the bridge,” he said, “but it is too dangerous to get them out.” There is also a body inside on one of the cars, which is marked with an “x.”

The names of the deceased are being released by the Hennepin County medical examiner after families have been notified, he said.

While the recovery effort might seem to be moving slowly, “there is no confusion or anxiety,” Pogemiller said. “People are professional and organized. We just want to be cautious.”

Said Lubinski: “Our main message [is] the patience of the public, and not a lot of gawkers at the site.” Those who have gone down to the site have likely found little to see; a circle of the perimeter the day after the collapse found all access closed at points with little or no view of the bridge.

Lubinski said that the now-closed access points will be opened as soon as possible.

Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin (District 4) shared his knowledge of the difficulty of the ongoing recovery effort, saying that divers in the water are “hearing rumblings” of the shifting wreckage as they search amongst it for victims.

“Once we get the area cleared, we can do an investigation,” said McLaughlin. “Then we can get on with rebuilding the bridge.” While the investigation into what caused the collapse could take as long as a year, he said, “we don’t have to wait for the investigation… to start rebuilding.”

There was some discussion about the area’s designation as a crime scene. While County Commissioner Mark Stenglein (District 2) said he was “uncomfortable with that,” Jeremy Weiland, from the St. Anthony East neighborhood, said he was “very comfortable” with the designation. Weiland called the bridge collapse “a gross case of negligence,” likely referring to scrutiny of the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s (MNDoT) record of inspection and repair – or lack thereof – on the bridge.

“The last time I checked, negligence was a crime,” Weiland said.

Rhetoric aside, Lubinski explained that the crime scene designation was tied to certain procedural and data-practice aspects of the recovery effort, such as the release of information. “There’s a good reason for it,” she said. She did not know when the scene might be declassified as a crime scene.

Pogemiller noted that, in the wake of the I-35W collapse, the state has made a “commitment to upgrade inspections.” Stenglein said that engineers are checking the support piers of the “fragile” Lowry Avenue bridge, and Hofstede added that the 10th Avenue bridge – immediately downstream from the collapsed bridge – is also fragile. That bridge is closed for fear that it might be susceptible to wreckage from the I-35W bridge as the recovery effort moves forward.

Access and traffic, from near and far

The 10th Avenue and #9 bridges will remain closed for the next couple of days, said Lubinski, in large part because of the security involved in President Bush’s visit on Saturday, Aug. 4. “We’d have to sweep the entire area for bombs,” she said.

That would stretch even more thinly a police force that is currently on “Phase Three Alert,” Lubinski said. That means that all officers’ days off are canceled while everyone on the force works 12-hour shifts every day. Police are working with the fire department, mayor’s office, and other city, state and federal agencies on the recovery effort. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is the lead federal agency.

Lubinski assured neighborhood representatives that, despite the concentration of officers on the disaster, the MPD is maintaining “a lot of patrol presence” in the neighborhoods. She has not seen a spike in crime, she reported, although the alert will likely mean officers will not be available for regular overtime patrols that some neighborhoods pay for with Neighborhood Revitalization Program funds.

Rep. Phyllis Kahn told law enforcement that she wanted the Stone Arch Bridge and the pedestrian bridge between the east and west banks of the University (officially named Bridge #9) reopened. Kahn said she understood the need to keep them clear for the emergency effort in the first days after the collapse, but that the bridges are major routes for Downtown workers.

The effects on transportation will be felt much further out, as well. Metropolitan Council Chair Peter Bell said that his agency, which oversees Metro Transit, is working to open more suburban park-and-rides – to serve as many as 75 additional buses – in an attempt to minimize the impact on commuter traffic from the loss of such a major artery into Downtown. Bell has been in contact with Jim Simpson, head of the Federal Transit Authority, to “secure the resources to reconfigure the transit system,” said Bell.

“The whole goal is… trying to replace 140,000 trips on the bridge segment [and to] get people to think about not moving just vehicles, but moving people,” said Bell.

Brian Lamb, general manager for Metro Transit, said his agency would look to create and market incentives for people to use mass transit, and he encouraged employers to do the same.

Weiland drew applause when he asked, “How fast can you get North Star and Red Rock [commuter rail lines] going?” Others mentioned pushing up construction of the Central Corridor Light Rail Transit line.

“That’s a fair question,” Bell responded. He said he could explore the possibility with the FTA’s Simpson, but that “it is not just a question of funding. There are workers, engineering, contracts” to be considered.

Representatives Jim Davnie and Diane Loeffler encouraged Lamb to focus not only on getting people in the suburbs to bus from park-and-rides, but also on offering more bus options for Minneapolis commuters into Downtown.

“Make sure Downtown works,” said Davnie.

Local officials and residents also voiced concern about the need for better communication with MNDoT about the impact of immediate traffic changes, such as the closing off of Broadway and Como avenues to Highway 280. “The closing of Broadway is a major, major issue,” said Loeffler, who also noted that the main UPS and bulk mail centers are near University and 280. “I’ve been getting lots of calls.”

Loeffler said that she has spoken to a MNDoT official who asked for local input on traffic rerouting. She said she recommended that MNDoT open I-35W from the north to as near to the river as possible, “so people can get off on University [Avenue].”

Nicollet Island resident and University of Minnesota professor Judith Miller warned that increased use of Washington Avenue in the Seven Corners area of the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood to access I-35W north would cause traffic jams like the one she witnessed the day after the collapse.

A representative from the University of Minnesota said the university is working on how to get people into the U when school starts in early September, but admitted that she didn’t have any answers right now.

Bob Lind, from the small business area of the city’s department of Community Planning and Economic Development (CPED), said his office is looking at what and how small businesses are being affected, and that CPED is working to come up with “real practical solutions.”

Emergency funding needed

McLaughlin said that an emergency declaration was being drafted to attempt to secure federal funds for overtime and supplies for the effort.

In a post to the Prospect Park listserv, Kahn reported that $5 million in federal aid has already been allocated by the secretary of transportation.

Later on Friday, Aug. 3, Congress approved $250 million for bridge reconstruction.

At one point, Kahn asked when a special session would be called (by Gov. Tim Pawlenty) to pass a transportation funding bill, but Pogemiller kept the conversation to local and immediate matters.

“There are higher-level political things that will happen,” he said later on during the meeting. “Even if people say, ‘So-and-so hate each other,’ that’s 5 percent. The other 95 percent are doing their jobs.”

Pogemiller did note the need for long-term investment in infrastructure. “We need to fix that,” he said.

More local connections

City officials plan to use National Night Out – set for Tuesday, Aug. 7 – as a vehicle to get information, such as bus schedules, to the community. For up-to-date information, residents are encouraged to visit the city’s website, and the Twin Cities’ Red Cross website.

The assembled officials voiced great thanks to police, firefighters, Red Cross workers and others involved in the rescue and recovery effort.

Jake Spano, from U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s office, extended thanks from Klobuchar to all the responders. Spano noted that the tragedy hits home for Klobuchar, whose home is in the Marcy-Holmes neighborhood and whose daughter goes to school nearby.

Ward One Council Member Paul Ostrow and a representative from Ward Two Council Member Cam Gordon’s office were also on hand.