The Fall and Rise of the I-35W Mississippi River Bridge – Part 4: Politics

Some will say the Bridge collapse was not about money. Throwing money at the Bridge would not have kept it from falling. Others note money could have bought:

  • more inspections,
  • a structural (e.g. finite-element) model of the Bridge,
  • better, faster repairs,
  • the ability to replace the Bridge sooner.

Money could have been spent more wisely. More importantly, money is always a constraint on decision-making at MnDOT. As was noted in the Star Tribune: “Phone call put brakes on bridge repair: Plans to reinforce the Bridge were well underway when the project came to a screeching halt in January amid concerns about safety and cost.” (Article by Tony Kennedy and Paul McEnroe, Star Tribune staff writers Last update: August 18, 2007 – 4:36 PM)

Tim Pawlenty had already vetoed a legislature-passed increase in the gas tax that could have raised money to repair bridges like this one. The latest vetoed gas tax would not have solved this problem, but previous taxes that were not passed (due in part to Pawlenty’s previous veto threat) may have, had the money been spent on this kind of thing. The gas tax had not been raised in Minnesota since 1988, and thus its purchasing power had diminished significantly, while the network was expanded and aged, and traffic levels increased. Pawlenty’s campaign took pride in this veto, posting a clipping from the Star Tribune on their website:

“WEDNESDAY, MAY 16, 2007
STAR TRIBUNE: Pawlenty vetoes gas tax, income tax bills

By Patricia Lopez, Star Tribune — Gov. Tim Pawlenty struck swiftly and with strong language Tuesday to veto a gasoline tax increase and an income-tax-for-property-tax swap that were at the heart of the DFL’s agenda for the session. — DFLers accused him of protecting the state’s richest 1 percent — those who would have borne most of the income tax increase, which would pay for the proposed property tax relief — at the expense of everyone else. But they conceded that some of their top objectives are fast sliding out of reach.”

PO BOX 21887 – EAGAN, MN 55121. (This article can still be accessed. Accessed April 19, 2012)

Gas Taxes in the United States and Minnesota are dedicated to transportation (and in some cases just to roads). The 2008 Minnesota gas tax bill phased in an increase of the gas tax by 8 1/2 cents a gallon by 2014. Of that, 3 1/2 cents of the gas tax increase was dedicated to paying the debt service on $2 billion in road and bridge bonds. The bill borrowed $1 billion from 2009-2010, with $600 million earmarked for repairing or replacing the state’s 13 most dangerous bridges. In addition, the bill increased the sales tax in the seven-county metro area by 0.25 percent for transit. It also increased license tab fees on newly purchased cars and trucks (1.25 percent on sale of new cars, drops 10 percent per year).

The bill was passed by the legislature, but vetoed by Governor Tim Pawlenty. The Governor had run on a “no new taxes” pledge, and clearly had political aspirations. He was frequently mentioned as a possible Vice Presidential running mate for the 2008 GOP Presidential Nominee, John McCain, and was hosting the GOP convention in St. Paul, Minnesota that year. While in the event, the Governor of Alaska, who had more foreign policy experience, got the nod as the VP candidate, Pawlenty continued to look towards higher office, and was for a time, a candidate in the 2012 GOP party nominating process, before dropping out for lack of support and will.

The Override Six are Republicans who voted with DFL to override Gov. Pawlenty’s veto of the gas tax bill. Four of them lost their seats due to Primary challenges, while the Republicans lost two of those seats to the DFL in the 2008 General Election. This leads to the rule that voting in favor of a gas tax increase can be dangerous to your political health, if you are a Republican.

  • Representative (District) – Party Endorsement? – Primary Victor – General Election Victor
  • Bud Heidgerken (13A-Freeport) – retired – – Paul Anderson (R)
  • Rod Hamilton (22B-Mountain Lake) – Rod Hamilton – Rod Hamilton – Rod Hamilton (R)
  • Ron Erhardt (41A-Edina) – Keith Downley – Keith Downley – Keith Downley (R)
  • Neil Peterson (41B-Bloomington) – Jan Schneider – Jan Schneider – Paul Rosenthal (DFL)
  • Jim Abeler (48B-Anoka)- no endorsement – Jim Abeler – Jim Abeler (R)
  • Kathy Tingelstad (49B-Andover) – retired – – Jerry Newton (DFL)

Carol Molnau was the state’s Lieutenant Governor and the MnDOT Commissioner. While she had been confirmed in the first Pawlenty Administration, when she was reappointed, the DFL legislature did not confirm her, and her appointment expired in February 2008. That can be directly tied with dissatisfaction with her and the Governor’s performance dealing with the Bridge. Notably she was not the Department’s point person with the media in days, weeks, and months following the collapse. She was replaced by Tom Sorel, a federal civil servant who had worked on the Bridge replacement process.

The political problem is deeper than just the fate of a few politicians though. It is a classic problem in transportation funding. Ribbon cuttings on new projects are much more attractive to politicians (and newspapers and TV news) than maintaining what we have. People are also more interested in road surface than the underlying structure. Yet pavement failure, while bad, is not nearly as bad as structural failure. “Failure” in the traffic level of service sense (LOS “F”), while economically costly and personally annoying, and perhaps leading to more (or at least different) crashes, does not have anywhere near the same connotation as structural collapse.

The competing uses of funds are ultimately political decisions. Should money be spent for bread and circuses (er. football and baseball stadiums) rather than genuinely productive infrastructure? Five years later, should money be spent on new bridges with added capacity (e.g. the Saint Croix River Crossing in Stillwater) while over 1000 structurally deficient bridges remain in Minnesota (Kimball, Joe (2011) MinnPost, Report says 1,149 Minnesota bridges are deficient)?


Other Parts in Series: Part 1 – IntroductionPart 2 – StructurePart 3 – CommunicationPart 4 – PoliticsPart 5 – EconomicsPart 6 – TrafficPart 7 – Replacement, Part 8 – Policy Implications