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NTSB No hearing on bridge collapse

Associated Press

MINNEAPOLIS — Members of the National Transportation Safety Board say partisan politics weren’t a factor in the 3-2 decision against having a public hearing on the Interstate 35W bridge collapse.

The board’s decision was split along party lines, and has been criticized by Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Rep. Jim Oberstar, both Democrats.

"We have different political perspectives, but on the business of the board, our views aren’t partisan," said Kathryn O’Leary Higgins, one of the two Democrats on the NTSB who pushed unsuccessfully for a public hearing.

Higgins and Deborah A.P. Hersman, the other dissenting board member, said an interim public hearing would have been to dispel suspicions of partisanship.

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"We recognized ... that there are a lot of political nuances in this debate, certainly in Minnesota," Hersman said.

Higgins and Hersman were appointed to the board by President Bush but were recommended by Democratic leaders in the Senate. By law, the other three seats are controlled by the party in the White House.

Those three members include NTSB Chairman Mark Rosenker, vice chairman Robert Sumwalt and Steven Chealander. They voted against a public hearing based on the recommendation of staff, which concluded a hearing wasn’t necessary and would delay the investigation.

In a letter to Oberstar, who called the board’s decision "contemptuous," Rosenker wrote that "the board’s longstanding practice has been that the majority vote becomes the position of the board."

Rosenker also said the purpose of a public NTSB meeting is to hear the testimony of technical experts, not to hear from the public.

"Many people erroneously believe that a Safety Board public hearing is like a town hall meeting, with members of the public giving their opinions," Rosenker wrote. "It is actually a hearing that is open for public observation, not participation."

Rosenker promised a public discussion once the I-35W investigation is completed later this year.

Current NTSB members say a split decision isn’t unusual.

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"We agree most of the time, but there are occasions when board members see things differently," Sumwalt said. "I believe that is the way it should be."

Hersman cited 3-2 votes on the contributing causes of some major airliner disasters, including the November 2001 American Airlines crash at JFK International Airport in New York and the 2006 Comair runway crash in Lexington, Ky.

"I think it just shows that we’re operating as Congress intended us to, not always marching in lock-step and not always deciding things unanimously," Hersman said.

Higgins and other board members said that this case is unusual because of the political pressure in Minnesota, particularly from Oberstar.

"It’s a combination of this happening in Mr. Oberstar’s home state, as well as the fact that he’s the chair of the Transportation Committee," Higgins said. "That kind of convergence doesn’t happen very often."

Oberstar made it clear this week that he intends to use the agency’s budget hearings in April as a forum for delving into the 35W bridge investigation.

"He has made no secret that he has concerns about the NTSB process," said Oberstar aide John Schadl. "There should be a thorough investigation, no matter how long it takes."

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