thebridgesofhennepincounty-smal.jpgThe I-35W bridge in Hennepin County was not the only bad bridge in Minnesota. Not by a long shot:

Corroded strands of rebar jut from the sides and pillars of the cracked Hwy. 36 bridge near Stillwater, while jagged pieces of fallen concrete litter the ground below.
Every day, nearly 10,000 vehicles travel eastbound over the crumbling structure. Most of the people in the huge trucks, cars and school buses on the bridge are unaware that it has been listed federally as “basically intolerable.”

The Hwy. 36 span, crossing over Hwy. 95, appears to be the only structurally deficient bridge on a major Twin Cities highway to carry such a critical label. But throughout Minnesota, hundreds of thousands of drivers cross over steadily deteriorating bridges. Many are considered to be in worse shape than the Interstate 35W span before its collapse and have been on replacement lists for years.

And what has Carol Molnau, our illustrious MnDOT head and Tim Pawlenty protégé, done in her time in office to address these and other pressing issues?

From the beginning, Molnau, 57, has seemed to be an unlikely leader for MnDOT.

She’s a no-new-taxes farmer without a college degree heading an agency with 4,500 employees and a $2 billion annual budget that hungers constantly for road funding. By her own admission, she’s a “not very polished kind of person.”

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At a post-bridge collapse news conference last Monday, wearing white Capri pants and a nautical theme T-shirt, she praised the media’s coverage, then turned the session over to her assistant, Bob McFarlin. She stepped away from the microphones and sat down.

At another news conference later in the week, she stood in the back of the room as a reporter questioned the legality of a consultant’s contract involving bridge inspection. Molnau didn’t respond. It was McFarlin who immediately seized on the implication and defended the agency.

Um, wow. She really doesn’t sound like she’s all that qualified for the job, does she? But when you’re Tim Pawlenty’s buddy, such things don’t matter:

Molnau spent five terms in the House after serving on the Chaska City Council. She rose to chair the Transportation Finance Committee and was a fierce opponent of light-rail transit, favoring instead outstate and suburban projects.

In 2002, Pawlenty’s desk-mate in the House became his running mate. In 2003, Pawlenty gave her a unique dual role. In addition to her duties as lieutenant governor, he made her the head of MnDOT, one of the state’s largest and most important agencies.

Ah, a transit department head who hates the most effective weapon we have against pollution and the negative effects of sprawl. Charming.

Oh, and she flatly refuses to allow her agency staff to ask for the money they need, because that might require raising taxes, especially on rich people.

I remember a time, back before the 1980s, back before the long string of Republicans running things at the state and national levels, when Minnesota was a place to be envied, a shining city on a hill. We had excellent roads, bridges, schools, utilities, and jobs. Now, thanks to decades of cutting away the tax burden from the rich and shifting it onto the poor and middle class, Minnesota is no longer so shiny; if it shines at all, it’s only because the rest of the nation has got even worse.