Bruininks ponders worldwide impact of bridge collapse

by Mitch Anderson

The Daily sat down with University President Bob Bruininks Monday to discuss the impact of the Interstate 35W bridge collapse and how he plans to help the University move forward.

So where were you when you first heard the news that the bridge had collapsed?

I was actually coming back from our cabin north of Grand Marais. I was up there for a couple days on a working vacation. I heard the first news about it at 6:30 in the evening, when we got into cell range. Ö We were just beyond Two Harbors when I got a phone call giving me a heads up that this had happened. I wasn’t even in the city yet.

I’ve talked to other people, and people from all over the world were calling to make sure those they knew here were safe.

Despite being such a local event, people from around the country and world have been impacted by it. Why do you think that is?

I think it’s because if it had been some other kind of disaster, say a tornado or a major wreck of some kind, those are sort of the unpredictable events in life that can happen. They’re natural disasters that people know are just a part of living.

But here in the case of the bridge, you always assume it’ll be safe, it’d endure forever, and if it had a problem, someone would find it and fix it. You didn’t travel across that stretch of highway and ask yourself, “What are the odds of getting to the other side?”

I’ve driven that stretch of highway for the last 40 years, probably a thousand times. It never once crossed my mind that the bridge wouldn’t hold, or any other bridge I go over for that matter.

You assume you could die in a plane crash or on a highway, but you don’t assume that the basic structure holding you up when you travel is going to fail.

There’s something unbelievably unsettling to that. It makes everything else around you seem so much more unpredictable.

Can you think of any event that comes even close to comparing to this?

I’ve never seen anything like this happen before, yet what happened here is common to the experience of everyone around the world.

I think Sen. Klobuchar said it best when she said, “Bridges are not supposed to fall down. They’re not supposed to collapse.”

What does the University plan to do in order to help move on from this incident?

We’re beginning to work with the Metropolitan Council and work on a transportation plan that we’re going to have to put in place for these next two years. People are working on increasing public transit and trying to figure out whether there are ways to make it economically more advantageous to take public transit.

The good news is that roughly 60 percent of University students and employees use alternative transportation to get to campus. For example, 20,000 students currently use the U-Pass that we help support financially.

The University’s resources are used in the emergency management center; our police are very actively engaged as well as other emergency management people. The Academic Health Center and the University’s mental health unit have been dispatched to help with families directly affected by the bridge collapse.

I think we’d be willing to be involved in technical issues. There’s a lot of basic research going on here that has to do with the engineering structures and safety structures here at the University.

We have a National Science Foundation structures lab Ö this is a $20 million National Science Foundation grant that is designed to build a laboratory to test the strength of structures under extreme conditions, essentially.

We have the Center for Transportation Studies, I think the best center in the United States, that can help with the traffic and other issues we’re going to have to address here.

I would say we have to respond as an academic community Ö because we have some academic resources here that might be helpful in sorting out the issues of determining what happened. We’ve indicated to people that any resources they feel they can access and use from the University of Minnesota, we’ll be more than willing to help provide.

You were at the memorial service at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church last night. How do you feel the city is healing from tragedy?

That service was really very moving and I thought a wonderful expression of concern for this community and the people who had been directly impacted by the collapse of the bridge.

One of the people who came up to me afterward was visiting from Chicago. She said she saw it on TV and felt compelled to come to the service.

That just shows how the attention of the world has been riveted on this area. It’s an important and powerful event.