When a busy Pittsburgh bridge collapsed Jan. 28 into a ravine, taking several cars and a transit bus for the ride, it put an exclamation mark on well-known bridge problems in the city. national scale.
But how bad are individual bridges? Don’t ask, at least in Pennsylvania.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette recently created a searchable database of 22,000 bridges, based on notes from state Department of Transportation inspectors that the newspaper had discovered online. When requesting detailed inspection reports for the bridges, PennDOT denied the request and later deleted the inspection notes the Post-Gazette found.
PennDOT has made progress in repairing and replacing old bridges, including through innovative administrative changes to expedite the process. The agency also provides general data, including set ratings for each bridge under its jurisdiction, but not the actual inspection reports.
Secrecy should not be part of the state’s transition strategy. People have the right to know the details of the bridges that not only belong to them, but that they cross every day.
A PennDOT official offered the Post-Gazette two worn-out excuses for hiding the inspection reports in secrecy: the reports are technical documents that residents and the media might misunderstand; and terrorists (who can apparently understand the reports better than most Pennsylvanians and journalists) could use the reports to attack bridges.
The dodging of terrorism dates back to the 2007 collapse of the Interstate 35-West bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, which killed 13 people and injured more than 100 others. Even though the collapse was the result of structural issues that had been documented during inspections, the Department of Homeland Security sent letters to all 50 state transportation departments advising them not to release inspection reports in order to not give an advantage to terrorists.
Residents of West Virginia, Ohio, New York and Maryland need to be smarter than their neighbors in Pennsylvania and less concerned about terrorism because they can get individual bridge inspection reports, which are considered as public documents.
Inspection reports should also be public records in Pennsylvania. PennDOT’s duty is not to hide them, but to explain them. The legislator should impose this transparency.
— Voices of the citizens of Wilkes-Barre