I-35W Bridge Update - Week 14

Week 14 by Ivy Chang | September 28, 2010

On Friday, November 10, the Minnesota Department of Transportation fired Sonia Pitt, its director of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, for taking unauthorized trips, making excessive personal calls on an MnDOT cell phone and failing to return to Minnesota for 10 days after the I-35W bridge collapse.

The investigation of Pitt, who has been on paid leave since early September, scrutinized a state-paid vacation to Las Vegas, unauthorized flights to Washington, D.C., and her relationship with a high-ranking federal highway official in D.C. to whom she made excessive cell phone calls. Investigators found that Pitt had no work-related reason to be in Washington, D.C., for 13 days before and after the bridge collapse.

Pitt's travel questioned

During the time, records show that Pitt spent more time on the cell phone with the FHWA official than on work-related communications. Before her D.C. trip, Pitt attended a Harvard University three-day emergency preparation course approved by MnDOT which did not authorize any time in D.C. before or after the Harvard trip.

Pitt told an investigator she encountered travel problems reserving a flight, was well situated in Washington to work with government officials overseeing the federal response to the bridge collapse, and was never directed or ordered to return to Minnesota by MnDOT officials.

The agency calculated her unauthorized trip expenses, personal cell phone time and unauthorized time spent away from her office to be more than $2,170. Minnesota's legislative auditor said he may seek reimbursement from Pitt and also may seek criminal charges.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty's administration said that Pitt's termination was appropriate and will investigate whether she was properly supervised on her job.

Consultant changed its position

According to newly released documents from MnDOT, the engineering consultant that studied the structural safety of the bridge disagreed with department officials when it pushed to reinforce the bridge with steel plates. URS played a diminishing role in decisions about the bridge when MnDOT didn't agree with its plans to strengthen the bridge.

Last December, URS changed its position and agreed with MnDOT to closer visual inspections every year and in-depth weld inspections every five years. Although this schedule concerned some at MnDOT and URS, the final decision came in an e-mail that said URS did not think a $2-million retrofit was necessary. Instead URS recommended a plan to use electronic sensors to detect cracks. MnDOT rejected this idea.

As the communication continued, MnDOT inspected the bridge in May without URS. In July, officials sent an e-mail to call a meeting in August to discuss bridge inspection and on August 1, URS continued writing the final report three hours before the bridge collapsed.

Delayed spending, increased funds

Senior staff members from MnDOT testified to a panel of state legislators that its finances are improving and there's room to award contracts for scheduled projects until the Legislature meets in February. However, Commissioner Carol Molnau warned about possible project delays for 2008 because of limits on the department's spending. Department leaders said they need approval to spend $79 million more to keep the 2008 construction schedule on track, but legislators declined to act on the request.

In Congress, the House and Senate approved a $50.9-billion transportation bill that includes $195 million in emergency relief funds for the I-35W bridge but, President George W. Bush has promised to veto the bill and will do so during the week of November 12. Lawmakers said they are ready to take on another override.

Minnesota has already received $178.5 million from the federal government toward the bridge replacement. If approved, the $195 million inserted into the Senate bill, created by Minnesota senators Amy Klobuchar and Norm Coleman, would bring the bridge replacement funding to $373.5 million.

Permanent work begins

At the bridge site, concrete demolition is ongoing at the south side piers. Pile driving began on November 13 and MnDOT assured residents in the area that the contractor will finish at 5:30 p.m. from Mondays through Saturdays because of the significant noise created. The project will require 102 piles and is the beginning of the permanent structure. Crews are pouring concrete on the test shaft, allowing it to cure for four days and test it next week.