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MnDOT officials fail to provide local data

A day after Minnesota's most catastrophic bridge collapse in history, representatives from the Minnesota Department of Transportation refused to discuss the status and safety of local bridges.

A day after Minnesota's most catastrophic bridge collapse in history, representatives from the Minnesota Department of Transportation refused to discuss the status and safety of local bridges.

MnDOT's local district offices and state officials blamed each other for failing to release critical information about bridge inspections and other public data about taxpayer-funded infrastructure around the state.

MnDOT's Detroit Lakes office on Thursday cited orders from Gov. Tim Pawlenty's office as to why it could not produce information about the approximately 300 bridges it monitors in District Four - a 12-county area in the Red River Valley.

Pawlenty's office said all inquiries must be funneled through the State Emergency Operation Center, opened after the bridge collapse Wednesday, local MnDOT officials said.

Jeanne Aamodt, a media supervisor for MnDOT's state office, however, said local offices misunderstood and made a blunder when refusing to release information.


Aamodt said the governor issued no requests to limit release of information on local bridges.

MnDOT's delay in discussing local bridges violates the Minnesota Data Practices Act, said Mark Anfinson, an attorney for the Minnesota Newspaper Association.

The law entitles the public to access of data held by government entities.

The North Dakota Department of Transportation also did not fulfill a request Thursday for the latest inspection records for Cass County bridges. A spokesperson said records for the nearly 300 bridges were still being compiled and should be available today.

MnDOT District Four Engineer Lee Berget said his office followed state orders in limiting the release of bridge information and that he will release detailed bridge information today. The state wasn't clear about what district offices could tell the public, he said during a phone interview from his home Thursday evening.

Berget said bridges in MnDOT District Four are not "structurally deficient" and meet targets set by the state.

Detroit Lakes wasn't the only region told not to release information on bridge inspections to the public.

MnDOT's district office in Duluth also failed to distribute local bridge data in that section of the state Thursday, citing instructions from state officials who said information needed to come from St. Paul.


MnDOT's District Four office in Detroit Lakes oversees state highways and some bridges in Becker, Big Stone, Clay, Douglas, Grant, Mahnomen, Otter Tail, Pope, Stevens, Swift, Traverse and Wilkin counties.

Berget and MnDOT District Four Communications Director Judy Jacobs said earlier Thursday they were frustrated with state directives that didn't allow them to field questions about local bridge information.

"I think we could do a lot to alleviate people's concerns, but our hands are tied," Jacobs said. "When we are able to release the information I think it will show that we have no concerns in this area."

The Forum requested access to data detailing safety inspections at local bridges in the wake of the collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis on Wednesday.

The district office in Detroit Lakes said because a state "Code Orange" alert following the collapse of I-35W, she was instructed to direct all inquiries on local bridges the state's Emergency Response Center in the Twin Cities.

A subsequent request left with a dispatcher at the Emergency Response Center for data on bridges in the Red River Valley also was not fulfilled Thursday.

MnDOT's lack of response to questions on local bridge safety not only violates the state's Data Practices Act, but leads the public to assume the worst about local bridges, Anfinson said.

"Agencies do not have the power to decide on an ad hoc basis whether particular records are available or not," Anfinson said.


Anfinson said since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks government agencies sometimes limit release of public information, coining the data as a security concern that could help terrorists plot future incidents.

Local bridge data shouldn't fit that bill, he said.

"When a major emergency situation arises, a lot of legal rules will get warped," Anfinson said. "It sounds like that may be what's happening here."

The Duluth News Tribune, also owned by Forum Communications Co., contributed to this report.

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