Should bridge inspections be open to public?

bridges

A majority of the states prohibit the release of detailed bridge inspection information, citing terrorist threats, the Corpus Christi Caller-Times reports.

The newspaper via a public records request has asked for a detailed engineering report on the Harbor Bridge (in Corpus Christi). It appears the public has a clear interest here, given state plans for replacement of the bridge despite years of renovation that have upped the Harbor Bridge’s safety rating to a “6,” or “satisfactory, from a “4,” or “poor,” in 2001.

The Texas Department of Transportation has referred the request to the Texas Attorney General. But there the effort may stall.

In withholding the records of other bridges from public release, the Texas Department of Transportation has, at least seven times since 2002, cited not the Homeland Security Act but a federal law that prevents highway safety information from being used as evidence in lawsuits. This law, the department argues, applies to all bridges on any public road.

The attorney general has agreed that the law can be used to withhold the information from the public, even outside the courtroom.

U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials have advised states against the release of details about critical infrastructure.  Following that advice, at least 30 states refuse release of information relating to the comprehensive state of bridges, the Caller-Times found.

But because of the way many bridges are designed, “failure of a single part” can bring them down, the newspaper reports. So keeping specific details of bridge inspections wouldn’t seem to affect a terrorist’s success rate.

The ideal scenario would be one in which governments develop a way to distribute bridge information to the public that would satisfy all concerned, said David Goldberg, spokesman for Transportation for America, a Washington, D.C.-nonprofit organization that surveyed the state of the nation's bridges last year.

"It makes sense that (government officials) would need some system or process for how they share the information, under what circumstances," Goldberg told the newspaper. "There should certainly be an open and less than cumbersome process for sharing with entities like the news media that have a broader public platform."

Drivers can get a broad sense of how safe their bridges are from the National Bridge Inventory, which listed the bridge in Minneapolis that collapsed five years ago as “structurally deficient” in 2005. The website NationalBridges.com has made the data searchable.

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Contact Mike Cronin at mike@texaswatchdog.org or 713-228-2850. Follow him on Twitter @michaelccronon.

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Photo of bridges by flickr user cindy47452, used via a Creative Commons license.