Investigators have a “working theory” of why the I-35W bridge collapsed, said U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters Nov. 1.
They believe that a poorly designed metal component called a gusset plate combined with excessive weight on the bridge caused the collapse.
The National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the collapse, has said a formal finding will not be available for at least a year, but Peters made the statements at the Nov. 1 White House Transportation Legislative Leaders Summit.
Sen. Steve Murphy, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, attended the Nov. 1 gathering, where he said Peters announced that "a finding of fault was not going to be lack of inspection or lack of maintenance" by state officials.
"I think it taints the findings," he said.
A spokesman for Peters said Murphy's account of her comments was inaccurate.
"What she said is, look, I'm not going to prejudge what the NTSB is going to find, but the working theory that they are operating on, and this has been in the news for about two months now, is that there was a combination of a gusset plate and too much weight placed on a certain part of the bridge," spokesman Brian Turmail said.
"Certainly, the NTSB would want to look into whether lack of maintenance was a factor in the collapse of the bridge," he said. But "the working theory at the NTSB is that it is not a lack of inspections, but a design flaw and weight."
However, Rep. Ron Erhardt, R-Edina, confirmed Murphy's account. "Murphy was sitting behind me and I turned to him and said, 'What is this?'" Erhardt said. "To hear that it wasn't maintenance or inspection, I thought, 'What the hell?' I remembered early reports about the gussets and I thought, what is that but lack of maintenance?"
A design flaw would give administration critics less of an opening to hold current officials at the Minnesota Department of Transportation or Gov. Tim Pawlenty responsible.
"It's true, yeah, we are looking at the design issues and the gusset plates and the weight of the construction materials and equipment on the bridge," NTSB spokesman Peter Knudson said. "We're also looking at the maintenance and repair history. We're looking at the de-icing fluids—any role they may have played. We basically haven't ruled anything out yet."