Politics, just like rust, never sleeps. Both may be factors in the collapse of the 35W bridge. But there’s a chance you’ll never get the full story on either of those factors, thanks to the National Transportation Safety Board’s decision not to hold an interim public hearing on the disaster that took 13 lives. The NTSB recently voted 3-2 to not hold the public hearing, angering Minnesota Congressman Jim Oberstar — who has frequently been critical of the NTSB’s handling of the investigation.
Inside Minnesota Politics and The UpTake have obtained the written dissenting opinions from NTSB Commissioners Deborah Hersman and Katheryn O’Leary Higgins. The dissent reveals not only displeasure with the other commissioners’ decision not to hold a public hearing on one of the worst bridge collapse disasters in U.S. history, but the document also gives us a glimpse into likely factors of the collapse.
The dissent mentions the design flaw that NTSB Chairman Mark Rosenker touted as the “critical factor” at a January press conference, and then quietly backed away from after Congressman Oberstar took him to task. But it also details other factors that should be aired in the public hearing. The two dissenting commissioners wrote:
“The public hearing can then focus on other relevant issues, such as the design approval process at the time the bridge was built and its evolution into the process that exists today; national bridge collapse or failure history; inspection criteria and procedures; corrosion standards; records retention requirements; national, state and local oversight; and other areas that could help us learn how to prevent a similar collapse.”
There’s that word “corrosion” again. Rust is an unavoidable reality for bridges unless you paint and maintain them regularly. The frequency of that maintenance (not just inspection) is where politics comes in. Democrats in Minnesota have been pointing fingers at Republican Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty’s administration, which has been strangling the budget so the dollars to do maintenance properly have not been there.
More political factors: NTSB Chairman Rosenker has spent a career in Republican politics starting with CREEP, the Nixon Re-Election group, where he was deputy director for radio and TV. He has worked in nearly every Republican campaign from the 1970s to the present. If funding for bridge maintenance turns out to be a factor in the collapse, Republican Governor Pawlenty could end up taking the political fall for it.
According to the dissent, NTSB staff are concerned that politics will make it difficult to hold a public hearing. The dissenting commissioners argue that the political charged environment make a public hearing necessary to maintain the public’s trust in the process:
“The downside of not holding a hearing is significant not only for this accident and for the transportation community, but also for the Board. We believe we would be abandoning our important duty to educate and reassure the traveling public of an independent, transparent, credible investigation after a tragic accident of national scope. And, after our decision not to hold a public hearing on the Comair flight 5191 accident in Lexington, Kentucky – for which the Board was roundly criticized – we believe our reputation for independence and transparency would suffer further.
“This is one of the rare accident investigations the Board has undertaken that has involved the total collapse of a major interstate highway bridge. Given the number of interstate bridges that exist in this country, the age of those bridges, and the use of those bridges, there is a significant need to explore whether this accident is likely to remain rare in the future.”
Congressman Oberstar will ask the NTSB to reconsider its decision not to hold the public hearing:
“I am disappointed in Chairman Rosenker’s decision to not hold public hearings as part of the investigation of the I-35w bridge collapse, I believe the board is making a mistake. There has not been a bridge collapse in the United States in decades and it deserves a hearing. For NTSB it is both a teaching and learning opportunity. The board can teach the public how it investigates a tragedy of this magnitude and the discussion of the data that was gathered may yield new information that will help explain how this tragedy occurred. No investigation has ever suffered from a thorough discussion of the evidence.”