Jeff Fuentes Gleghorn
After the Fern Hollow Bridge in Pittsburgh collapsed earlier this year, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) removed information on bridge safety from public view. Since at least 2010, PennDOT has provided full bridge inspection reports on their website for anyone to view. The reports included notes from inspectors that gave specific information about bridge safety. For example, notes on one bridge name the exact number of beams that have rotted the most, beams 1 and 11.
Pennsylvania officials have said that they removed the information because “state and federal law” say they should not be available to the public and are exempt from public records requests. However, several nearby states including Maryland give these reports to the public by request. PennDOT officials have said that they are also concerned that residents will misunderstand the reports and worry that terrorists will use the information to attack a bridge.
As far back as 2003 the Federal Highway Association (FHWA) has asked states to keep detailed information about bridges secret. In a 2003 publication, the FHWA released recommendations for bridge and tunnel security that included establishing “‘need-to-know basis’ procedures for the release of vulnerabilities, security measures, emergency response plans, or structural details for specific bridges.” After a Minneapolis bridge collapsed in 2006, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) released a bulletin asking state officials to protect specific details about the structure of bridges.
However, there has never been a successful terrorist attack on any bridge in the United States. Advocates say that these reports are important for residents, who are at the most risk if a bridge collapses. The Post-Gazette obtained the full database of bridge reports – before it was taken down – and has published it themselves, saying that they wanted to “add to the public’s understanding of the backlog of bridges that are rated ‘poor’ across the state — more than 3,000.” Together, Lehigh and Northampton Counties have 70 bridges in poor condition according to that data, with many remaining fully open to traffic.
PennDOT still provides the ratings for bridges in Pennsylvania, which are on a scale of “poor”, “fair”, or “good”. Residents can find that information on One Map, an interactive map run by the Department of Transportation. This is in line with Virginia’s policy, which has been in place since 2006.