You get what you pay for


I was already home when the eight-lane interstate Mississippi River bridge went down Wednesday, August 1, at 6:05 PM, rush-hour in Minneapolis. I-35W looked tiny from the helicopter videos on TV—an eight-lane bridge! I had to go downtown. I had to go see.

Opinion: You get what you pay for

Well, you couldn’t see. Cops were everywhere draping keep-out tape like popcorn strings on a Christmas tree. All these different kinds of first responders in uniforms—in uniforms on horses, on foot, in cars, in clumps, everywhere. Ambulances and security suits were driving back and forth with lights and sirens, passing each other amid traffic and the sleep-walking pedestrians.

Thousands of us coagulated downtown in that nervous human-to-human adhesion around disasters. It was a people event. Minnesota-nice. An anonymous family reunion where it’s safe to talk to anybody and everybody has something to say.

“Yea, I heard…”

“No, they said the repairs weren’t structural—just repaving.” In fact all our freeways seem to be getting cosmetic fixes this summer in preparation for the Republican National Convention in St. Paul next September.

After Pres. Bush’s photo op at the catastrophe on Saturday, there was a hint that the new $350-million bridge might be fast-tracked, a monument to American corporate can-do. “As quick [sic] as possible,” the president said the bridge would be rebuilt.

It scares me to think they’d be setting concrete during a Minnesota January for a bridge that collapsed in 100-degree summer heat. Think of the abuse our bridges suffer, bleached white with salt in winter, deicing that corrodes the superstructure, everything loosened with freeze and thaw, and then expanded perhaps to the breaking point with summer heat.

The I-35W bridge was “old”—40 years old. Forty years ago the bridge was designed to carry 40 thousand cars a day. Today 140 thousand vehicles use I-35. The trucks are significantly heavier and travel faster than the 65 mph limit designed for 40 years ago. The freeways are battered, worn out in order to get those made-in-China goods distributed. Despite the decline in the American dollar (it’s worth about 75 cents in Europe) consumerism drives (pun intended) the economy and recreational shopping is a Friday night ritual for many.

The downed bridge was reported to be the first (or third) most heavily traveled bridge in Minnesota. It was built in 1967, three years before redundancy was built into bridges. Redundancy is why we have foot brakes and emergency brakes for cars. In the space program multiple redundancies are de rigueur since there is no forgiveness in the great out there. In 1967 the I-35W steel arch truss bridge was erected 64-feet above the Mississippi so that if a single truss failed, the bridge would fall. Dominoes.

No central column in the middle supported the 500-foot wide span so as not to interfere with navigation. Barge traffic above the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers has always been iffy. Without the dams we could walk over the Mississippi in a drought summer. Dredging and the lock and dam systems artificially flood the river channel. It would be cheaper to ship grain out by rail than river barge according to a study by the Institute for Trade and Agriculture Policy (Levins, Rice and Swain, 2000).

Still, it was a beautiful bridge, the I-35W span stretched across the Mississippi an elegant spider web between the chunky Stone Arch Bridge and the commonplace 10th Avenue Bridge. The I-35W bridge is just one of 77,000 deficiently maintained US bridges.

Blame the Little Woman

The blame at first fell on Republican governor Tim Pawlenty. The governor vetoed three transportation bills in order to claim no new taxes for his run for higher office—US vice-president in 2008. Pawlenty, with his anti-tax profile, was a darling of the Bush-Rove White House and an early supporter of presidential candidate John McCain. But Pawlenty has since reneged on his tax pledge and John McCain is out of the race.

Remember that Pawlenty bowed out of the senate campaign when Rove picked Norm Coleman in 2000; the White House owes their loyal Republican second-term Minnesota governor. And coincidentally the Republican National Convention will be held in St. Paul next September. Rove visited Minneapolis with Bush for the Coleman benefit on August 21.

In a Rovian move Teflon Tim has somehow swung the bridge blame to his lieutenant governor who is also head of the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT). Carol Molnau, not known for her sweetness and light, passionately dodged her first press conference blame question by hollering that her daughter used the I-35W bridge daily. While other politicians (the men) were solemn and reasoned, Molnau was loud and defensive.

The sleight-of-language that rinsed the blame off Pawlenty and onto Molnau is the word “priority.” It’s not that the governor nixed adequate money to maintain our infrastructure—it’s that the MnDOT commissioner did not prioritize the lack of money to an urban bridge.

Both the governor and his MnDOT commissioner-lieutenant are from the south suburbs and cater to the “suburban vote,” generally labeled white and Christian, feeling both entitled and fearful. Of the known dead in the bridge collapse, most were from the suburbs.

Pawlenty is capitalizing on his national exposure from the bridge collapse and floods in the state’s southeast corner to appear in a kind of Guliani, post-9/11 political pose—a tall, reassuring, slightly stooped, slightly smiling padre figure saying all the right things, without content.

Exhausted Minnesota flood victims living in the steep hill and valley terrain of the driftless area declare they will rebuild in the flood plain again. Flood amnesia during the weather extremes we’ve been experiencing is crazy. “Crazy” is when what you are doing doesn’t work and you do it over and over.


So how did the federal DOT (Department of Transportation) find stress fractures on the I-35W Mississippi bridge a decade ago that the state DOT inspectors did not see? The structural faults were painted over. And over. MnDOT spokesman Dan Dorgan explained that the state executes “arms length” inspections. Without X-ray vision it’s hard to see minute fractures hidden under paint at arm’s length.

MnDOT maintains a stable of experts with explanations and assurances like Dorgan who promised “no adverse impact” on Coldwater Spring when Highway 55 was built into Minnehaha Park in the late 1990s. According to MnDOT court-ordered monitoring figures, the spring, still flowing at almost 100,000 gallons per day (gpd), has lost 27,500 gpd since construction, almost 20 gallons per minute. Tell ’em what they want to hear and send in a different spokesman at the next meeting is the MnDOT salve.

MnDOT is the richest, most powerful agency in the state. If legislators don’t play ball with MnDOT the roads in their districts don’t get fixed. Voters badger their representatives with complaints about commutes going slower, taking longer. According to a report by the Texas Transportation Institution the average Twin Cities driver now wastes $722 annually in time and fuel with traffic congestion—not to mention the childhood asthma epidemic. Despite the fact that Americans cannot build their way out of highway congestion MnDOT engineers continue to design roads on pieces of paper in offices which are then inserted into the land.

St. Croix River, one of the original eight designated Wild and Scenic Rivers in 1968, will get a new bridge near Stillwater regardless of the law. I-394 west out of Minneapolis requires permanent dewatering of the Great Medicine Spring (in Theodore Wirth Park) and nearby historic Glenwood Spring. Two and a half-million gallons of groundwater a day is funneled into Bassett Creek and then into the downtown sewer system and dumped directly into the Mississippi. Sucking water out of the ground dries out the landscape. Powderhorn Lake has been cut off from most of its spring water sources by I-35W which is sunk into the neighborhood and floods with each big downpour—as if you can mitigate the flow of water!


Thursday morning, the morning after the bridge went down, I called my North Carolina and then California relatives and reported in. Then I emailed more relatives and friends and talked on the phone both long distance and local. I had this urge to connect with my people. I found out I didn’t know anyone who was on the bridge but I heard a number of stories about friends-of-friends who usually took I-35W but didn’t on Wednesday. Or stories about people who left work early. Then I went back to the disaster scene to see.

“I heard the workers’ interviewed,” somebody said as we bellied-up to the crime scene tape. “They said the bridge was going to come down—they felt funny vibrations all day.” Who would believe construction workers on a day so hot and humid feeling “off” would be normal? Who would know better?

Rigging up a seismograph on bridges could be a method of ascertaining what the construction workers knew in their bodies. An earthquake monitor would provide a baseline record of bridge movement that could be compared to unusual vibrations and signal a problem. There has to be a way to triage our 77,000 failing bridges beyond eyeball inspections.

Progressive Contractors interviewed their bridge construction workers and stories of freak swaying and vibrations stopped. Other workers however reported abnormal bridge behavior–at least at first. For two weeks before the bridge collapse workers at the Lower St. Anthony Falls Lock [corrected, 9/4/07] noticed aberrant sounds coming out of the bridge. Parts were moving that shouldn’t move. In the real world the chain of command comes down from the top, not up from the bottom, so the workers were squeezed into the position of keeping quiet, keeping their jobs.

On Saturday, three days after the disaster, I met people from Iowa and Illinois on the Gutherie overlook in the rain. Respectful demeanor and illegal parking were ubiquitous. A people’s altar was growing near the base of the hill, by the river, on the edge of the crime scene tape.

For days following the bridge collapse politicians lined up, sweating and squinting, in front of TV cameras waiting their turn to spin the blame. The Bush wars cost $12-billion a month. Safe infrastructure and food, health care, equal public education, meaningful work at a living wage—that’s Homeland Security. It will not be foreign terrorism that brings down the US empire.