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Report critical of MnDOT's decisions relating to Interstate 35W bridge prior to its collapse

ST. PAUL -- Transportation officials called the Minneapolis bridge a "budget buster," so expensive to fix or replace that decisions were put off, for years, until it collapsed last August.

A new report on Wednesday said money worries, imprecise inspections, and disregard of policies at the Minnesota Department of Transportation may have led to bad maintenance decisions ahead of the catastrophe that killed 13 people.

A separate federal investigation has highlighted a design flaw and the weight of construction materials as critical factors, rather than maintenance.

But the report, done by a law firm hired by the Legislature, examined MnDOT's structure and procedures and found that warning signs about problems with the bridge were not acted upon.

"Financial considerations, we believe, did play a part in the decision-making" regarding fixing the bridge, said Robert Stein, who oversaw the report by the Gray Plant Mooty law firm.

"Sometimes it's easier just to take the least expensive alternative or just commission another study," Stein told lawmakers on Wednesday.

For example, instead of a $40,000 ground-penetrating radar survey of the bridge deck in 2006, engineers dragged a chain across the span to listen for unsound concrete. The radar test, an internal e-mail notes, "was not completed due to lack of funding."

That same year, officials from the state's bridge division examined rehabilitation and reconstruction options.

In meeting minutes, they noted that a replacement bridge would cost $75 million or more, a project they concluded would be "cost prohibitive" and not in the cards for 20 years.

The new bridge expected to be done by this fall will cost at least $230 million.

One lawmaker wanted to know whose job it was at MnDOT to ask for the money for repair or replacement.

"There was confusion about where the money would come from once you got to anything major," answered Tom Johnson, another attorney for the firm.

The bridge was rated in "serious to poor" condition for 17 consecutive years by the National Bridge Inventory Standards.

The report said MnDOT guidelines called for the rust to be scraped off bridge trusses so the good steel could be measured precisely.

But after 1993 precise measurements weren't included in yearly bridge reports.

That meant that in 1998, transportation officials re-calculating the bridge's weight capacity had to use the original design measurements rather than the amount of good steel that was really on the bridge, the report said.

Two MnDOT inspectors who wrote inspection reports said they'd never even seen a written copy of those guidelines about measuring the remaining metal. And supervisors who should have made sure the reports were complete did not, the report said.

Stacked up, the report and its appendices stood 15 inches tall and lawmakers went through it with pencils and highlighters at the ready at the three-hour hearing.

Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, instructed questioners to raise their hands high. "I can't see anybody over the stacks of paper," he said.

MnDOT Commissioner Tom Sorel, who took his post only last month after previous leader Carol Molnau was ousted, said he was reviewing the report and couldn't comment in detail on many of its findings.

The National Transportation Safety Board investigation of the bridge's structural problems is expected to be finished later this year. The design flaw pinpointed by the NTSB involved some gusset plates, which help connect steel trusses, that were too thin.

The interviews conducted by the law firm included four with engineers at URS Corp., the consulting firm hired in 2003 to study the bridge and determine if upgrades were needed. URS has declined requests for media interviews.