Minnesota’s GOP Pharaohs
(Picture of Pharaoh Tim Pawlenty-kamun courtesy of the H.P. Lovecraft collection at Miskatonic University, Arkham, Massachusetts.)
You’d think that watching a bridge fall into the Mississippi might make the Grover Norquist disciples over at Phil Krinkie’s Minnesota (Rich) Taxpayers’ League and their Republican puppets in the state Legislature and the Governor’s Mansion rethink their desire to drown government in the bathtub — which, as it turns out, means drowning motorists in the Big Muddy.
But you’d be wrong — the hearts of Minnesota’s GOP Pharaohs are hardening faster than Quik-Crete:
Seeking more tax money for transportation in Minnesota has been a Charlie Brown and Lucy comic-strip saga. Every year for the past dozen or more, the football’s been teed up, then yanked away.
A fallen interstate bridge changed the game, didn’t it?
“I’m not sure it did,” said a glum Robert Vanasek last week, before Wednesday’s legislative hearing on a replacement for the Interstate 35W bridge.
“Will there be a special session?” asked the House’s party-maverick transportation champion, Ron Erhardt, R-Edina? He got no response, at least not from the Minnesota Department of Transportation officials at the witness table.
Through the fog created by such responses, it seemed apparent that the state will pay eventually for a new bridge, the cost of which will run somewhere north of $300 million. The feds are good for $250 million, but probably not more.
But an impression was created that “eventually” might not equate with “soon.” Not a few people left the hearing room wondering whether the transportation deal and special session that seemed like a lock a week earlier had fallen out of favor within the Pawlenty administration.
It clearly had with some of the governor’s Republican allies. House GOP leader Marty Seifert argued Thursday that no special session is necessary. Neither is an increase in the highway-dedicated gas tax, he said. The state’s general fund appears to be accumulating a surplus this summer. It can be tapped instead, he suggested.
It can, if legislators are willing to settle for a one-time Band-Aid rather than real investment. And if they are up for a fight with cities, schools, and the rest who covet the same money.
And of course as has been pointed out before, the “surplus” Soap-Suds Seifert talks up is smoke-and-mirrors, illusory Enron-style accounting done by the Pawlenty team. But when have facts been an obstacle to Republicans in the past?
You can tell how determined they are to stop any sort of tax increase, because they’re rolling out the big guns in the propaganda front. The upscale, soft-spoken silk-and-money brigade is represented by high-powered Republican lobbyist Mitchell (now self-dubbed “Mitch”, the better to seem empathetic to Joe and Jane Lunchbucket) Pearlstein. Pearlstein, whose polish and position as head of a prominent local
sheltered workshop propped up by wingnut welfare conservative think-tank gives him a gloss of respectability not possessed by Krinkie or Seifert, sorrowfully said in yesterday’s Opinion section of the Minneapolis StarTribune that raising taxes would be immoral and icky and besides MnDOT had plenty of money anyway. Which is rather interesting of him to proclaim, as that’s not the picture one gets from the article that graced the front page of that very same edition of the StarTribune:
Internal MnDOT documents reviewed by the Star Tribune reveal that last year bridge officials talked openly about the possibility of the bridge collapsing — and worried that it might have to be condemned.
The documents provide the first look inside MnDOT’s decision-making process as engineers weighed benefits and risks, wrestling with options to prevent what they believed was a remote but real possibility of the eight-lane freeway bridge failing.
Their concerns were not generalized, documents show. The San Francisco-based consultant, URS Inc., identified 52 crucial steel box beams deemed most susceptible to cracking. URS also had a specific recommendation that 24 of the 52 members be reinforced while the remainder would be kept on a special watch. Video of the Aug. 1 collapse being examined by the National Transportation Safety Board shows the bridge first falling on the south end over its shoreline pier — a section of the superstructure where eight suspect beams were specifically tagged for reinforcing.
Dorgan and senior engineer Gary Peterson denied in interviews that money was a factor in deciding what to do with the Interstate 35W bridge, which was not due for replacement until 2022. They provided a written timeline showing that MnDOT supervisors on Nov. 1, 2006, funded the reinforcing project for $1.5 million, with work to begin in January 2008.
But at least three internal documents suggest that money was a consideration.
On Jan. 18, one day after MnDOT’s Bridge Office opted to inspect rather than reinforce the bridge, Peterson apologized to an engineer in the department’s Metro Design section that work put into the reinforcing project was for naught.
“We regret the additional work this has caused you and others in the district,” Peterson wrote in an e-mail, “but I’m sure you agree that based on this new information it [is] appropriate that we postpone the project until we can determine if another option may [be] as safe and a more cost effective approach.”
Earlier, when MnDOT and its consultants were zeroing in on reinforcing the bridge, an internal MnDOT “investment strategy” meeting was held on July 24, 2006, in which officials debated various approaches.
According to meeting minutes, officials said that immediately installing steel reinforcements would greatly reduce the risk of a crack forming “between now and 2022.” That way, the agency could pick the ideal time and circumstances for carrying out the work.
The “risk” of that approach was described this way: “Must pay approximately 2 million dollars to get the job done.”
A logistics and financial issue also was discussed. MnDOT officials said that if the bridge was simply inspected, the benefit would be: “Don’t have to pay for steel, stockpile steel, or install steel.”
The downside of such a decision, MnDOT officials acknowledged in the meeting, was that “If a crack is found it will take 4 months to order steel and reinforce the bridge, and the bridge will be closed to traffic for this duration. But there is a further risk that the damage is beyond fixing, and the bridge will have to be condemned. This means 35W will be closed for a minimum 5 years until the new bridge is finished.”
MnDOT’s overarching focus on cost over safety is also shown in this article from last Thursday’s Strib:
As state money diminished, so did goals for bridge safety
After setting an ambitious goal in the late 1990s of keeping 65 percent of Minnesota’s bridges in good condition, state transportation officials retreated from the target as they fell behind in their efforts to reach it.
The top bridge engineer in the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) said the agency began discussing lowering the goal in 2003 and later dropped it to 55 percent, a reversal that came as MnDOT faced mounting financial challenges.
Though MnDOT officials said the goal was revised to reflect what other states were doing, and not to lower any safety standards, some legislators said the change is one more sign of how a beleaguered department was forced to align its expectations with dwindling financial resources.
As of last year, MnDOT was falling short of even its lowered goal.
“It would be rare if they said, ‘We’re going to lower our sights here,'” said Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, a member of the House Transportation Finance Division Committee. But Hausman said the message to legislators regarding overall transportation funding was clear.
“They would tell us privately that they’re out of money,” she said, “and they have grown increasingly alarmed.“
But don’t bother telling that to Pharaohs Seifert, Krinkie or Pearlstein. That might cause them to shift uncomfortably in the leather cushions of their chairs in their comfy exurban McMansions, and that would be bad.