Is the National Transportation Safety Board spinning the results — so far — of its investigation into the collapse of the I-35W bridge collapse to get Gov. Tim Pawlenty and his lieutenant governor and transportation commissioner off the hot seat? That is what at least one professor appears to be asking.
A couple of weeks ago, Mark Rosenker, the chairman of the NTSB, cited design of the gusset plates on the bridge as the key factor in the collapse. That sent Gov. Tim Pawlenty and conservative columnists into “I told you so” mode, saying the results showed that MnDOT was not negligent in its bridge inspections.
“… while the NTSB investigation is not complete, the focus of the investigation appears headed in a direction different than many of the political claims that have been made. It is our hope that at least now people will reserve further judgment until the investigation is complete and that we strive to address these matters in a fair, factual and non-political manner.”
But today, C. Ford Runge at the University of Minnesota, in an op-ed article in the Pioneer Press, questioned whether Rosenker had political reasons to draw the conclusion.
… Rosenker is very, very close to the Republican Party and the White House and has spent a career in Republican politics, beginning with CREEP, the Nixon re-election group that brought us the Watergate plumbers, where he was deputy director for radio and TV. He subsequently worked in nearly every Republican campaign from the 1970s to the present. Prior to his appointment to the NTSB, he was deputy assistant to the president and director of the White House Military Office, where the secretive Dick Cheney noted that he was responsible for finding “those secure, undisclosed locations where I’ve been known to spend my time.” He is also close to Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) who helped launch the recall petition for Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, allowing Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger to replace him. He must therefore be passingly familiar with Republican gubernatorial politics too.
Rep. Jim Oberstar, sent a letter to Rosenker today that turned the heat up another notch.
“The press conference was intended to provide an update on the status of the bridge investigation, and to warn the FHWA and owners of other bridges that the NTSB investigation had revealed that gusset plates in the I-35 bridge were undersized due to a design flaw. This was an important and appropriate message for the Board to convey. However, as properly noted in the Safety Recommendation issued at the conference, ‘the Board’s investigation is on-going and no determination of probable cause has been reached.’ This means that the Board has not yet determined the role played by the poor design of the gusset plates in causing the accident. The Board has not yet determined whether the design of the plates was the primary cause of the accident compared to other possible causes such as corrosion or poor maintenance.”
“In these circumstances I consider it highly inappropriate for you to have stated, as you did in the press conference, that the poor design of the plates ‘tells us why the bridge collapsed.’ Although you admitted that you did not hve complete information on corrosion, you nonetheless insisted that poor design was the ‘critical factor.'”
Nearly 6 months after the collapse, then, the debate is now between those who consider the the investigator a political hack vs. those who consider investigating whether the collapse had anything to do with the action — or inaction — of MnDOT a “witch hunt.” Regardless of which is more truthy, the final report will be damaged goods.
Somehow, in this debate, someone is supposed to figure out why a bridge fell down.