Rebuilding Common Ground
Mayor R.T. Rybak
Tuesday, October 9, 2007
The first time I saw the collapse of the I-35W Interstate Bridge was from a State Patrol Helicopter at about 11 o’clock on the evening of August 1.
By that point, I had already made about one hundred decisions – big and small – about how to manage the disaster. I had spent most of the previous hours in the city’s emergency command center underneath City Hall.
Throughout those early hours we heard numerous ongoing reports about what was happening, and after awhile a camera was set up so we could see parts of the site itself, but until I went up in that helicopter I couldn’t really put it all in perspective.
The helicopter I was in had no side panels so I had an unbroken view of everything and as we took off over downtown I remember how beautiful the city looked that night. The skyline, the river, the Stone Arch Bridge…and then this incongruous, horrendous sight with bizarre shapes of metal and concrete in the river and on both banks. Cars, trucks and a bus were scattered on the bridge and smoke was still rising in the air.
When I saw the vehicles on what was left of the bridge, and in the river, I immediately began thinking about who had been in them: a mother, a dad, a son or daughter, someone coming home from work, a parent driving the kids to a soccer game. Once I started thinking about the stories in each of those vehicles, I couldn’t stop and by the time the helicopter landed, I was so numb that I could barely talk.
It was a very important moment in the way I understood this whole catastrophe because it set my mind on the human piece of the tragedy. It would have been easy to not focus on people. There were many things that had to be done – huge objects to move, huge decisions to make – that it would have been easy to just focus on what was at hand.
But after seeing the bridge I knew I needed to focus on the people who were affected by this. After another hour at the command center, I went to the Family Center – a makeshift drop-in facility in the Holiday Inn Metrodome for people who were missing someone they suspected was in the collapse.
The first person I saw there was a man sitting alone and shaking. He told me his younger brother didn’t come home for dinner, that he always took that bridge, and that he knew him well enough to know he would have called. I later found out that his brother was Pat Holmes, who died on the bridge.
Next I saw a man with his sister. His wife worked at Thrivent, she always took that bridge and she also didn’t call that night. I later found out his wife was Sherry Ingebretson, who also died on the bridge.
Every day in America there are moments when millions of us cross paths without ever seeing who we are. People walk by on the sidewalk or a shopping mall without saying hello. Cars switch lanes in heavy traffic without paying attention to who is behind the other wheel. We live the same place but often don’t know who we really are.
Then something happens that forces us to look up from our daily routine to see what and who is really around us.
That happened dramatically, and tragically, in Minneapolis on August 1.
- A marketing director whose husband and daughters had dinner waiting on the table;
- An amateur baseball player driving home to see his wife and their two young kids;
- A pregnant Somali nursing student and her little girl;
- A Cambodian woman and her son with Downs Syndrome, who were inseparable;
- A vegetable salesman from Mexico whose young family was scattered across two countries;
- A former missionary who worked in computers; and
- A veteran construction worker who loved ice fishing, hunting and peach pie.
Today they and six others are gone. Many more, including a bus filled with school children, were on the bridge but escaped alive.
All these separate lives, intersecting for one tragic moment in Minneapolis, are now woven together forever. It’s during times like these that we realize we really aren’t all that separate after all. We realize that in the middle of a tragedy, and every moment of every day, we all share common ground.
This has a special resonance for those of us in government, because we provide that common ground with the services we all share: public safety, roads and bridges, public water, garbage removal, snowplowing, public housing, libraries, schools and parks.
In our roles as stewards of the common ground, we should take this lesson out of the bridge collapse in Minneapolis: When you invest in quality government you get quality results. When you don’t invest, there are consequences.
In Minneapolis, we have
Soon after 9/11, I and dozens of top city officials spent a week at the National Emergency Training Center in Mount Weather, Virginia at a Minneapolis-specific emergency management course. Following this training, we identified a series of shortcomings and inefficiencies and immediately started working on ways to address them. Our actions included:
- Adding $20 million of 800 MHz radio capability that helped our emergency responders communicate during immediately the initial hours of the bridge collapse.
- Investing in a state-of-the art computer aided emergency dispatch system.
- Equipping our water filtration plant with security computers and cameras to monitor our water supply.
- Adding state-of-the-art protective equipment for emergency responders.
- Investing in our emergency operations center, in wireless internet technology, and security cameras throughout the city.
In all, over the last five years, we invested over $50 million to improve Minneapolis’ ability to quickly and effectively respond to any type of emergency. It is crystal clear today that our efforts paid off. Because of that $50 million investment, Minneapolis and all our partners were prepared to respond to the bridge collapse with professionalism, coordination and excellence. When you invest in quality government, you get quality results.
But in Minneapolis, and in cities across the nation, we have not
I say this as the Mayor of a city recovering from a tragedy that was not an act of God. It was a failure of man. For some time, we have known that our rates of investment have not kept pace with rising maintenance and rehabilitation needs. Rising costs for energy and oil-based products, steel and many construction materials have only added to this increased liability.
Mayors across the country have sounded the alarm about the lack of investment in infrastructure, especially transportation, long before the I-35W Bridge collapsed. Mayors understand that there is no free lunch when it involves basic infrastructure. Every day we are required to keep a relentless focus on results, because every day our citizens see at the grassroots whether or not we are providing the basic services they expect, and whether they are getting a good value for their tax dollars. We need to be honest about our needs to improve mobility, and what it will cost to get there.
In Minnesota, like everywhere around the country, people are driving more, and this puts more pressure on our road capacity. Today, we in Minnesota are spending 31% less per vehicle on transportation than we were in 1975. As a result, our roads are dramatically more congested than five years ago. The average driver in the Minneapolis Saint Paul region spends a full work week stuck in traffic every year. We know that both roads and transit are essential to solving this problem, and we have a plan for an integrated system that would increase mobility and create transportation choices for the people who live, work and visit our region. The problem is that we have dramatically under funded this plan – both in terms of the capital required to build an integrated system as well as well as the dollars required to operate it. To give you an idea of the gap, the difference between what we have and what we need is estimated to be about $19 billion over the next 20 years. Every year we wait, this gap grows.
The Federal government has been a strong partner with state and local governments when it comes to transportation funding. But too often state governments have not stepped up to the plate. I regret that many states, including Minnesota, have relied heavily on borrowing to fund transportation projects, leaving us to fall further and further behind. Too often cities are forced to fund basic road and bridge improvements through local property tax increases. By not investing as we should, Minnesota loses out every year to billions of dollars of available federal transportation funding that could be put to use right now.
This is not a long-term solution. This is why as Mayor of Minneapolis I strongly endorse increases to the state gas tax to fund road and bridge improvements, and why I strongly support strategies like a regional metro sales tax dedicated to transit funding. It is also why I, along with the U.S. Conference of Mayors, endorse the proposal by Congressman Jim Oberstar for a temporary increase in the federal gas tax to repair or replace bridges nationwide.
It isn’t always popular to ask everyone to pay a little more at the pump, but it’s clear to me that we either pay now or we pay later. We pay now to invest in transit that will get us less dependent on foreign oil or watch gas prices skyrocket even further because we are addicted to oil. We pay now to invest in fixing our transportation infrastructure or pay dramatically more as our roads and bridges deteriorate further. We know from our tragedy that "paying later" with infrastructure can mean more than just money.
I am not alone in calling for these investments. In recent legislative sessions, I have joined with dozens of other mayors from across the region to advocate for more transit, and better roads and highways. We know what the solutions are to our transportation needs and the plans are in place to make this happen. In the last legislative session, major comprehensive transportation legislation passed both houses of the legislature with strong bi-partisan support. This legislation would have infused the needed resources into a balanced approach to improve transit, roads and bridges:
- It would have helped bring us to the reality of a Central Corridor light rail line and dedicated bus lines on several major highways in the metro.
- It would have laid the groundwork for multiple rail lines, not our current path of one line every ten or twenty years.
- It would have added much needed highway capacity on I-35W, I-35E, Hwy. 169 and the I-494/I-694 beltways.
- It would have made sure that all our transit, roads and bridges were in top, safe condition and repaired the deterioration our transportation infrastructure has experienced over the years.
Unfortunately, this balanced, bi-partisan solution to improve our transportation infrastructure was vetoed by Governor Pawlenty. The Governor alone prevented progress on this important front. Immediately after the bridge collapse, Governor Pawlenty seemed to finally understand the need for more transportation funding and even agreed to include transportation funding in a special legislative session. By the time he actually called that special session, all conversation and any action on the I-35W Bridge and our ailing transportation system was gone. While states around the country like Missouri and Kentucky called special legislative sessions to better fund their transportation systems in the wake of our bridge collapse, this state did not.
Now some are saying that providing the long overdue investment in our bridges must come at the expense of transit and other transportation needs. The reality is that a balanced, funded approach was needed before the I-35W Bridge went down and a balanced, funded approach is needed after the I-35W Bridge went down.
Until we get real leadership on this issue from the Governor, the tragedy that is our transportation system will continue to deteriorate – along with our economic prosperity and quality of life.
In the face of reduced state funding and mounting pension obligations, we in Minneapolis have needed to prioritize investment of resources into public safety, at the direct expense of other basic services. Almost no other area of the city has felt this pain more than our city infrastructure. While city general fund spending over the last five years for police will have grown 30 percent, spending for public works grew only 10 percent over the same time period.
As we all learned so dramatically nearly two months ago, our transportation infrastructure needs ongoing attention and repair. In Minneapolis, we are investing as our resources allow.
Investing in Bridge Repair and Rehabilitation
I have proposed that capital funds for City Bridge Repair and Rehabilitation be more than doubled in 2008 and increased over next five years from $950,000 to $1,450,000. It is important to note that this funding increase was planned before the I-35W bridge collapse, not in response to it, as part of the need we identified to improve bridges as part of our repair and rehab program. This additional funding will allow us to increase the number of bridges receiving deck renovation and preservation. Our bridge program also includes funding to address Midtown Greenway Corridor Bridges, six of which are currently on the state’s list of ten city-owned bridges rated in the "structurally deficient" category.
Over the past five years, we have invested more than $17.3 million into our bridge capital program. We will continue to invest in our bridges to keep them safe and preserve their lifespan.
However, only 29 percent of the 411 vehicle bridges in Minneapolis are owned by the city government, so we need our county, state, and federal partners to do their part to make sure that all the bridges in our city are safe and meet the needs of our residents and visitors.
Access Minneapolis: Developing a Transportation Vision
Though the State has not been a leader on transportation funding, we in Minneapolis nonetheless are demonstrating the power of the City to speak with one voice on a transportation vision.
First, because of our work together to invest nearly $22.5 million in bicycle and pedestrian amenities over the past five years, Minneapolis was one of only four communities in the nation selected to receive $7 million in federal grant money through the Non-Motorized Transportation Pilot Project. We will use these funds through Bike Walk Minneapolis to make this the best biking and walking city in America.
Second, because of our work together to advance the Access Minneapolis plan, we were ready when the bridge collapsed to not only respond from a public safety standpoint but to respond with a transportation vision that helped us make the case for an LRT ready bridge and for new freeway access from the east side of downtown to I-35W northbound.
Third, because of our work together on Access Minneapolis and our work to build a broad-based, bi-partisan coalition of mayors and legislators from throughout the I-35W corridor for Bus Rapid Transit, we were ready to successfully push for the Urban Partnership Agreement and the $133 million it will bring to this region. The UPA is one of the most significant advancements in transportation in this region in many years. It only happened because mayors, council members, legislators and citizens along the I-35W corridor stopped arguing about what we didn’t want on I-35W, and instead agreed on a big vision for what we want.
The result is bus rapid transit and congestion-reducing pricing from Lakeville to the heart of downtown. It is also about realizing the vision of our Access Minneapolis plan: in just two years Marquette and Second Avenues will be completely rebuilt: wider sidewalks, more amenities for pedestrians and bus riders, buses moving must faster through downtown, which should mean fewer people driving alone in their cars. It also will allow us to take many buses off Nicollet Mall, leaving only low emission hybrid buses and bikes.
We will now do the same thing on the next great step forward for Minneapolis transportation: modern streetcars on high frequency transit corridors. Right now as part of the Streetcar Feasibility Study, we are developing design standards for streetcar-ready streets so that as sections of these streets are rebuilt, they are rebuilt to a high standard of transit amenities: a streetcar standard. My budget will continue this important work beyond the final streetcar report, as we work to build a public private partnership to build our first streetcar line.
We should not stop there. The deep divisions in our region and state have deeply hurt our city, but in these past few weeks we have shown that Minneapolis and Minnesota can have one vision that’s good for everyone.
The lesson is clear. If you invest in quality government you get quality results and if you don’t invest there are consequences. Having lived through the tragedy of this bridge, those of us who are stewards of the common ground should vow to never again have the kind of consequences we saw in Minneapolis. We owe it to those who died that day to get this right.
The day before I testified to Congress about the need to invest in our roads and transit I spoke at the opening day of Augsburg College. A young woman walked up to me and reintroduced herself. She was Sherry Ingebretson’s daughter, who had dinner waiting on the table when she got a phone call about the bridge. I remembered hearing at the funeral about how Sherry had been so excited about her daughter starting college and about how she was cutting pictures of wedding dresses because her other daughter was going to get married. Sherry wasn’t there to see her daughter start school, and she won’t be at the wedding and nothing is going to change that. But I did tell her daughter where I was headed, and how great it was that Congress and the State were both talking about doing what it took to make sure this didn’t happen again.
Many people in those early days said they would "do all it takes" to make sure this never happens again. It’s time now to put our money where our mouth is. We also need to back our words with action.
I worked closely with Governor Pawlenty to develop a new vision for the collapsed bridge and I’m proud of the way we both handled that partnership. But I’m deeply disappointed that Governor Pawlenty twice vetoed legislation that would have finally invested in our transportation infrastructure. And I’m equally disappointed that he has not made good on the promises he made in the wake of the bridge collapse to make sure this never happens again. He needs to be held accountable.
On the other hand, we have people like Congressman Oberstar, who has worked for years on transportation policy. He not only knows how badly the system is broken, he had the guts to stand up and propose a solution to fix this problem with a badly needed national gas tax. He needs our support.
Several hours after the bridge collapse I was at a press conference and said this would probably be the greatest disaster in the city’s history. I was wrong. The loss of life was tragic, but thanks in part to our response, the disaster was nowhere nearly as bad as it could have been.
The greatest disaster in the city’s history remains the explosion at the Washburn A Mill in 1878, just upriver from the I-35W Bridge. Eighteen workers died and the explosion was so loud it cracked windows miles away. More than one third of the city’s milling capacity was destroyed.
Milling was our main industry, this was our most important mill and in the wake of the disaster on the riverfront 140 years ago, people asked whether this young city on the Mississippi could survive.
The rest is history. Minneapolis came together to rebuild and we became a greater city than we were before the incident.
We will rebuild again.
Minneapolis continues to mourn. But we should also be proud. With the whole world watching, we proved that Minneapolis is a city that works. Our job now – along with the support we need from the state and federal government – is to prove that fact both in the middle of a disaster, and every day.
Last updated Sep. 27, 2011