Minnesota seeks second opinion on bridge collapse

State officials hire a consulting firm for separate investigation

News Star Tribune September 18, 2007
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Despite federal officials’ promise to unearth why the I-35W bridge collapsed Aug. 1, Minnesota plans to spend nearly $2 million over the next two years on a separate investigation, documents released Sept. 14 show.

A consulting firm that specializes in rapid-response analysis of structural failures and natural disasters was hired to conduct an examination over the next two years, independent from one being performed by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

The Minnesota Department of Transportation has made public a contract with Chicago firm Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates (WJE) that took effect the day of the bridge's collapse. A company project manager said he arrived on the scene just hours after the accident.

According to the two-year contract, the company is examining parts of the bridge to "characterize initial defects," doing calculations "to determine the source of the bridge instability" and performing various other duties.

The contract's release comes as the NTSB is continuing the federal government's official investigation of the collapse. State officials dismissed concerns that MnDOT’s decision to hire WJE was simply duplicating the federal investigation.

While NTSB spokesman Terry Williams said it was not unusual "for parties to our investigation to contract for technical assistance," he acknowledged Friday that "we do not usually see regulatory agencies contract for such technical assistance." However, Williams said that federal investigators were "working cooperatively" with WJE.

"The NTSB has control of the site," said Michael Koob, the project manager for WJE. "It's a sharing of factual information."

In hiring WJE, MnDOT spokesperson Chris Joyce said the agency was responding to Gov. Tim Pawlenty's early desire to have the state conduct a parallel investigation. The governor's office said Sept. 14 that the move was akin to "the philosophy that two pairs of eyes are better than one."

Pawlenty's spokesman Brian McClung said the separate investigation was implemented to make sure "absolutely nothing is missed" and also because "sometimes people are skeptical of government."

But WJE marketing manager Richard Walther and other company officials said they were unaware of the details surrounding the company's quick selection by state officials, who chose WJE without seeking bids from competitors.

Transportation consultant Barry Sweedler, who ran NTSB investigations during a 30-year career there, told the Associated Press that he'd be more inclined to trust the NTSB's report.

"I always look at who hires these supposed independent investigators," he said. "They both have access to all the facts. The question is how these facts are analyzed. How free will they be to really criticize the people who are paying them?"

The company will bill the state $210 an hour for its senior consultants and up to $275 an hour for structural engineers.

According to the contract, state officials said they hired the company because they were "in need of investigation services to determine the cause of the collapse and oversight services for the removal and demolition of the structural components of the bridge."

WJE, the contract states, should "avoid duplication to the extent practical" in regard to work being done by other government agencies.

So far, neither the NTSB nor WJE has determined what caused the collapse, and federal investigators have indicated it may take many months to do so.

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