Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Election Eve Conversion For Drazkowski-Sort Of

Some people are faster than others when it comes to sensing the world is collapsing underneath them. Governor Tim Pawlenty changed his tune on the gas tax within a day or so of the I-35W bridge collapse and now says he's open to a tax increase to make our roads and bridges safe.

Fellow Republican Steve Drazkowski, who would like to be the one who succeeds Steve Sviggum in the legislature, apparently is not as in tune with what is going on around him. Indisputable evidence that the state's transportation infrastructure is crumbling apparently took about a week to sink in on him. On the eve of the special election of Sviggum's 28B seat, Drazkowski finally said he might be open to a gas tax increase.

Unlike Pawlenty and Drazkowski, DFLer Linda Pfielsticker didn't need a bridge falling down to figure out that Minnesota's roads and bridges needed more funding. Her campaign for the 28B seat has been consistent: more funding for transportation is needed and all possibilities, even (gasp) a gas tax increase needs to be considered.

And while consistency in a position is the expected norm in politics, I remember Winston Churchill who said "I'd rather be right than consistent" and realize that ideally politics should be about pursuing the best solution instead of an ideological solution.

And I might have some hope that Drazkowski has come around to the Churchill way of thinking except for a few things.

1) If you're going to have the courage to change your mind, shout it from the rooftops and show your conviction. Drazkowski has done little on this front. His website still touts his draconian position on transportation: "A gas tax increase would cripple the economy in House District 28B. "

2)Even the usually conservative Winona Daily News realizes that Drazkowski is a fanatic. In it's endorsement of Pfeilsticker, it notes that Drazkowski's platform is focused on wedge issues.
"We believe his campaign focused entirely too much on wedge issues, aimed at pandering to small but vocal segments of the GOP. Abortion and immigration are federal hot-button topics meant to polarize voters. Right now in this politically charged environment, we need to talk about what issues really matter, not what issues really raise our blood pressure."
So to borrow another phrase, a leopard may be able to change its mind, but not its spots. Drazkowski has been a fanatic on his stance that no additional funding is needed for just about anything government does. While Drazkowski's election eve conversion should be applauded, Pfeilsticker has shown herself to be the more thoughtful candidate and doesn't need to be hit on the head with a falling bridge to have an open mind.

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Monday, August 06, 2007

Drazkowski: There is enough money for transportation projects

Tomorrow voters in 28B will have a pretty clear choice on how to fix the state's crumbling transportation infrastructure. One candidate favors more funding, the other thinks current funding is enough. Here's the side by side comparison of the Republican Steve Drazkowski and DFLer Linda Pfeilsticker's responses to the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce's questionnaire.

In order to strengthen Minnesota's economy, strategic investment in transportation infrastructure is necessary. How do you propose to fund Minnesota's transportation infrastructure to assure the safest, most cost effective transportation system that will meet the economic and quality-of-life needs of our state?

Steve Drazkowski:
There is enough money for transportation projects in Minnesota, we just need be more efficient and prioritize our spending on transportation projects.,
Linda Pfeilsticker:
Transportation is vital to the economic stablity of our region and state. We have to look at all forms of funding to determine what can be most effective and fair to improve and maintain our transportation system.

It appears Drazkowski is ignoring the reality even his fellow Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty has now recognized. Minnesota simply does not have enough money to keep its bridges in shape and needs to raise taxes.

A hat tip to Ollie at Bluestem Prairie for pointing out the MN Chamber of Commerce questionnaire.

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Sunday, August 05, 2007

Tuesday's Vote May Remove One More Safe Bridge Roadblock

One big roadblock to increased transportation funding has crumbled in the wake of the I-35W bridge collapse. On Tuesday voters in portions of Goodhue, Wabasha and Winona counties will have a chance to clear out another roadblock.

The biggest roadblock to increased transportation funding, Governor Tim Pawlenty, is finally open to increasing the gas tax after vetoing transportation bills two years in a row that contained a gas tax increase. Too bad it took an highway bridge falling down during rush hour to change his mind.

The question is: have the other roadblocks to safer roads and bridges changed their minds? If you remember, the last transportation bill passed with enough votes to overcome a Pawlenty veto. But when it was time to override that veto, several (mostly Republican) legislators bailed. The DFL is still several votes short of a veto-proof majority in the House. On Tuesday voters in House District 28B will decide if they want a vote for or against future transportation funding bills.

Despite the overwhelming evidence of need, Republican 28B candidate Steve Drazkowski continues to indicate on his website that he is against a gas tax:
Transportation: A gas tax increase would cripple the economy in House District 28B. Families and businesses are struggling with today’s high gas prices, and raising the gas tax would exacerbate the problem. Steve supports the Governor’s plan to bond for $1.7 Billion in road improvements and to pay the bonds back with the constitutionally-dedicated motor vehicle sales taxes that are currently collected from Minnesotans.

Steve favors using the $250 million surplus to help counties repair and improve roads. He would move to devote all road- related state fees to road projects. Steve will work for transportation funding that keeps locally generated transportation taxes working on projects right here, rather than exporting them to the metro area.
The bonding plan that Drazkowski cites is actually more expensive than just raising the gas tax because bonded money is borrowed money. And borrowed money comes with an interest rate. As far as keeping transportation money local, if every county did that our rural counties would have incredibly poor transportation infrastructure since most of that money is raised from taxes in the metro areas.

His opponent in Tuesday's special election, DFLer Linda Pfeilsticker, says she is open to a gas tax increase. She writes:
"My stance on transportation funding has been very constant. We need to look at all funding options. Bonding, a gas tax, and other sources of revenue all must be explored so we can pass a quality transportation bill that addresses our transportation issues and is financially responsible."
Note that Pfeilsticker leaves all funding options open. That's probably a good idea since even Minnesota's Transportation Commissioner/ Lt. Governor Carol Molnau admits that the gas tax her boss Governor Pawlenty vetoed would need to be at least three times as high to fix the problem. The gas tax, like all sales taxes is a regressive tax and unfairly burdens the poor. Fixing the problem will mean looking to taxes based on the ability to pay such as the income tax. Drazkowski is against any type of tax increase.

On Tuesday, it appears 28B voters have a pretty clear choice on safe bridges, Pfeilsticker's open mind or Drazkowski's roadblock. Wise voters pick the path to safety with the fewest roadblocks.

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Thursday, August 02, 2007

Video: Congressman Oberstar on Bridge Collapse

Congressman Jim Oberstar talks about how he has introduced a bill to fund rebuilding the I-35W bridge that collapsed. Currently the cap on emergency funding is $100 Million. Oberstar's bill would increase that to $350 Million. Congress made a similar exception earlier this year when a bridge in California was destroyed in a tanker fire. Video provided by Congressman Jim Oberstar's office.

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Governor Pawlenty Says Special Session Possible On Transportation And Infrastructure

Governor Tim Pawlenty today said he is is open to all options to solve Minnesota's transportation and infrastructure problems including a special session of the legislature. Previously the Governor had been very cool to the idea of calling lawmakers back into session. He vetoed the transportation bill the legislature passed because it included a 5 cent a gallon gas tax.

Pawlenty indicated that even if he had signed the 2007 transportation bill or the 2006 transportation bill which he also vetoed the I-35W bridge would not have been replaced.

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451 Minnesota Bridges Functionally Obsolete

Conrad deFiebre, who covered transportation for many years, has the figures on the safety status of Minnesota bridges.
The Interstate Hwy. 35W bridge that tragically collapsed into the Mississippi River Wednesday evening was one of 1,135 road spans in Minnesota rated as “structurally deficient” by the federal government.

That’s 8.7 percent of the state’s 13,008 bridges, 20 feet or longer, that are subject to annual inspections. Another 451 spans are considered “functionally obsolete.” Included in the total are 65 bridges that are more than a century old.
Full story from Minnesota 2020 here

Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty says there are three bridges in Minnesota that of the same design as the I-35W bridge that collapsed (click to see maps)
Highway 23 in St. Cloud
Highway 123 in Sandstone
Highway 243 in Osceola

Governor Pawlenty says those bridges will be inspected immediately. He says all bridges in Minnesota that fall into the "structurally deficient" category will be inspected as soon as possible.

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451 Minnesota Bridges Functionally Obsolete

Conrad deFiebre, who covered transportation for many years, has the figures on the safety status of Minnesota bridges.
The Interstate Hwy. 35W bridge that tragically collapsed into the Mississippi River Wednesday evening was one of 1,135 road spans in Minnesota rated as “structurally deficient” by the federal government.

That’s 8.7 percent of the state’s 13,008 bridges, 20 feet or longer, that are subject to annual inspections. Another 451 spans are considered “functionally obsolete.” Included in the total are 65 bridges that are more than a century old.
Full story from Minnesota 2020 here

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Video of Bridge Collapse Exists

National Transportation Safety Board Chair Mark Rosenker revealed this morning that a video of the I-35W bridge collapse is being examined by investigators. Rosenker said the video would be taken back to Minneapolis and digitally enhanced. The video was shot from a nearby dam on the Mississippi river.

Other highlights below:
  • Minnesota Governor Pawlenty responds to questions about a 2005 inspection that showed the bridge was "structurally deficient".
  • His pledge to immediately inspect other bridges of this type in Minnesota.
  • Emergency federal funding for cleanup, traffic control and rebuilding.
  • Former MN Transportation Director says we're starting to see the effects of budget shortfalls on infrastructure.
Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters has announced the federal government has made $5 million available immediately to deal with traffic problems and start rebuilding.

Senators Norm Coleman and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota say they are working to get more federal funding freed up for the rebuilding.

"This is a reminder that we need funding to keep our bridges safe", said Klobuchar.

"A bridge in America just shouldn't fall down", said Klobuchar "[this] investigation will take time. We need to get to the bottom of this"

"This investigation has already begun" said National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Mark Rosenker. "This will be a complex investigation." Rosenker said the NTSB will want to recover pieces and reassemble them so they can understand what caused the bridge to collapse.

Reporters asked Peters and Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty about the bridges "structurally deficient" rating of 50. Peters said the rating was "no means an indication this bridge is not safe" and that if it was unsafe Governor Pawlenty would have shut it down. Pawlenty said when the inspections that were done in 2005 and 2006 there was "no call by anyone" to close the bridge. Pawlenty also said there was a partial inspection of the bridge done in 2007 and it was scheduled to be completed in September after the construction was finished.

Pawlenty said the state will "immediately check all bridges of this design". He was not how many bridges that might be.

NTSB Chair Mark Rosenker also revealed that a video of the collapse exists and was shot from the nearby dam. The video will be taken back to Washington, DC and digitally enhanced. He said they are also asking for any one else with video of the collapse to contact the NTSB.

After the news conference former Minnesota Transportation Director Elwyn Tinklenberg said "We're starting to see the effects of shortfalls in our budgets" and noted there was a "tremendous demand" for highway and other infrastructure dollars.

Congressman Jim Oberstar will introduce legislation today to direct at least $250 million to the State of Minnesota to deal with the replacement of the I-35W bridge that collapsed yesterday. More here about today's mark up hearing. News conference is now scheduled for 1pm EDT/ Noon CDT

After today's mark up the Oberstar will attempt to bring the bill to the House Floor for passage today. "I am hopeful we can get this to the Senate in time for them to pass it before the August recess begins," said Oberstar.

Oberstar says this tragedy underscores the critical need to continue aggressively investing in our nation's transportation infrastructure. There are 585,000 federal highway aid bridges in the United States. Up to 30 percent of them are structurally deficient to some degree. However, 70% of the nation's traffic travels over just 547 bridges across the country every day.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Collapsed Bridge Repairs Were Delayed From 2006 to 2007

Crews were still looking for the injured from the collapse of bridge 9340 when the finger pointing of who might be to blame began. Former Minnesota Department of Transportation Commissioner Elwyn Tinklenberg, a Democrat, was on WCCO-AM saying that budget cuts had curtailed the DOT's ability to do complete bridge inspections. A few hours later Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, a Republican who had vetoed the transportation bill two years in a row, was telling the media that the bridge had checked out just fine when inspected in 2005 and 2006.

A MN DOT document from March 2006 indicated that the bridge was scheduled for repairs in 2006, but it was removed from the schedule because it would be more efficient to do the work in 2007. One of the questions that needs to be answered is if budget constraints were the cause of delaying the repairs.

If the lack of funding for bridge repairs and inspections had anything to do with the collapse of the 35W bridge and the loss of life it caused, it has the potential to be a political landmine for Governor Pawlenty and those legislators who voted to support his transportation bill veto.

The cause of the collapse and the answer to the question "could this have been avoided" make take some time to determine. The National Transportation Safety Board has been called in. There is likely to be investigations on the state level as well.

Inside Minnesota Politics has obtained the 89-page report of bridge 9340's inspection in 2001. In it, there are perhaps some hints of what may have brought the bridge down.

The report recommended inspecting certain parts of the bridge every two years as was the custom. But it specified the parts that had "high stress ranges" should be inspected every six months.

What's not known tonight is if those inspections were carried out as planned, or if budget cuts prevented them.

The 2001 inspection also noted that "The bridge's deck truss has not experienced any fatigue cracking, but it has many poor fatigue details on the main truss and the floor truss system. The research helped determine that the fatigue cracking of the deck truss is not likely, which means the bridge should not have any problems with fatigue cracking in the foreseeable future."

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