I-35W Bridge Update - Week 16

Week 16 by Ivy Chang | September 28, 2010

The legislative audit on former Minnesota Department of Transportation employee Sonia Pitt was released and found Pitt had "incurred over $11,500 of unauthorized, unreasonable, or inappropriate expenses and charged the state for over $14,500 of work time that should have been recorded as personal leave."

Auditors found Pitt was not adequately supervised and the department did not have enough internal controls over her state-paid expenses.

The Office of Legislative Audit recommended that the Attorney General's office seek financial recovery for the inappropriate costs and that MnDOT should repay the inappropriate costs to the federal government for items that were funded through federal grants. It also recommended that MnDOT include setting methods of supervising employees and having a system of internal controls that protect public resources from misuse.

In MnDOT's response, Commissioner Carol Molnau said some controls are already implemented and the department is continuing to develop other controls.

Accomplishments and defenses

In an interview with the Star Tribune, Molnau spoke out about her job performance and defended the actions of her employees in the aftermath of the I-35W bridge collapse.

She listed her department's accomplishments and acknowledged that she does not make decisions regarding the bridge. However, she explained her reasons for not continuing with the contractors to finish building the Wakota Bridge because of an error in the original contract and the high cost after two years of construction.

Molnau defended her actions for the Crosstown Highway 62 project last year when she asked contractors to front the startup money saying MnDOT wanted to move the project ahead with no federal funding, but contractors didn't buy the idea. Her assistant, always at press interviews and conferences, also defended her actions saying this idea had been tried in other states as transportation financing changed dramatically across the United States.

On the issue of gas tax increase, Molnau said even if the gas tax passes, it could not keep up with the transportation needs in any state and may have to be resolved at the federal level.

Political struggles

In Washington, D.C., Minnesota representatives sided with their parties in the struggle with the transportation bill, fought off accusations of publicity stunts, faulted each other for bloated spending bills, and accused President Bush of playing favoritism to a loyal governor.

Meanwhile, Minnesota union leaders brought out a former bridge inspector to testify about MnDOT's budget shortfall, the governor battled Democratic legislators about alleged mismanagement in the Department of Transportation, and a former Minnesota transportation commissioner decided to run for Congress against Michelle Bachmann, the Minnesota representative who helped create the $195-million bill to rebuild the I-35W bridge.

Saluting bridge heroes

In another article, four Star Tribune reporters used the photograph of the bridge immediately after it collapsed and traced every vehicle and every person in the photo with their identities and explanations of what happened to them. In a special column the editorial board of the newspaper saluted two men who helped rescue survivors at the bridge, including the busload of students, on August 1.

At the bridge site, construction crews worked on Thanksgiving Day to test the pressure of a concrete shaft that extends 100 feet underground. Two hydraulic jacks applied pressure to the shaft until it moved. The test helps engineers determine the final design of the real shafts to support the bridge's piers.

Crews also stopped the pile driver on Thanksgiving Day but resumed the pounding on Friday. Pile driving will be completed during the week of November 26. Night lighting and second shift work stopped from Thanksgiving Day through November 27.

Taking care of business

Minneapolis City Council members, mayor and other city officials visited businesses near the bridge site as part of their plan to monitor how the bridge collapse affected businesses. During the first week, some stores lost up to 40 percent of their business. One business closed and 11 businesses took advantage of federally insured low-interest loans offered to help small businesses after the collapse.

Many businesses have recovered although not to the level of business they experienced before the bridge collapse. City officials say they want no business to fail because of the bridge tragedy. Mayor R. T. Rybak is encouraging community support of businesses in the near northeast and southeast areas around the I-35W bridge.