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Pennsylvania Blocks Critical Details of State’s Most Decrepit Bridges From Public View – Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Interactive

SSen. Jim Brewster, D-McKeesport, who sits on the Senate Transportation Committee, said he has been concerned since the collapse of the Fern Hollow Bridge and the emergency closure the following month of the Versailles Avenue Bridge in his hometown, that “there’s not enough to know what’s going on with these bridges.

However, it is not certain that making inspection reports public is the solution.

“It could very well be that someone could cause a catastrophic incident knowing the structure of this bridge,” he said. “But I don’t know if having an inspection report would help them.”

A look at the ratings of bridge inspectors across the state shows startling details of the deteriorating conditions of other poorly rated spans.

The Richards Covered Bridge in Columbia County suffered “serious deterioration”, inspectors said. (Matt Freed/Post-Gazette)

A series of nine separate inspection notes in the database between 2015 and 2021 for the city-owned, 36-foot-long Sixth Street Bridge over Brush Creek in Jeannette show continued deterioration of two of the small bridge’s girders .

The beams have deteriorated so much that in 2020 the inspectors wrote: “The loss of sections of beams 1 and 11 has progressed since the previous inspection. 1/4″ steel plates had been spot welded to the webs of beams 1 and 11. The plates are not fastened enough to transmit the load. Concrete barriers placed on deck to remove live load from Beam 11.”

The plates are not fastened enough to transmit the load.

Inspection report for the Sixth Street Bridge in Jeannette

A state-owned bridge along Route 22 over Mickley Road in Whitehall, Lehigh County suffered a litany of problems when inspectors visited in June, making it clear why it was to be renovated later this year: “There has been an increase in the deterioration of the approach carriageways. There are several new flakes with exposed reinforcement in the approach slabs… The joint is not watertight. There was an increase in the section loss of girder 12 at the near abutment with a crippling web beyond the centerline of the bearing.

Notes from an inspection last year of another covered bridge in Columbia County – the Richards Covered Bridge near Elysburg – demonstrated why the bridge has a 3-ton weight limit: near the low left chord and the far right inner low chord. There was a slight increase in the loss of support under the sheet steel shims under the leftmost lower frame. Displacement of the near left low rope splice has increased since the 2020 inspection.”

Full Inspection Report of Richards Covered Bridge in Columbia County by Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Scribd

Mr. Young, a county commissioner and covered bridges advocate, said he was puzzled as to why the state would not allow the public to see such descriptions.

“We have the second most covered bridges – 23 – of any county in the state,” he noted. “And they’re a huge tourist attraction for us.”

“So why wouldn’t we want people to know their exact condition?” I mean, if they have to be shut down, we’ll shut them down. We have about six that are no longer allowed to have vehicles on them anyway, but we maintain them through a non-profit organization.

“If the public doesn’t like what they see, they will let us know,” he said. “I just don’t know why you wouldn’t want the public to know. It does not mean anything.”

Sean D. Hamill: [email protected] or 412-263-2579 or Twitter: @SeanDHamill

Data: Joel Jacobs

Debates over bridge disclosures have been going on for years


Despite the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation’s decision to keep bridge inspection reports and ratings from those reviews out of public view, the Post-Gazette publishes the ratings in a searchable database for more than 22,000 bridges. .

One of the reasons the news agency decided to release the information is to add to the public’s understanding of the backlog of bridges deemed “bad” across the state – more than 3,000.

PennDOT District 11 Executive Cheryl Moon-Sirianni. (Lac Fong/Post-Gazette)

The Post-Gazette’s decision was also prompted by the fact that three neighboring states — Maryland, New York and Ohio — are making the reports fully available upon request.

“The public deserves to see these reports,” said Post-Gazette editor Stan Wischnowski, adding that revealing the condition of bridges “ensures a more informed public and fosters a sense of transparency that Commonwealth citizens deserve. amply”.

In addition to the inspection memos, Pennsylvania officials say they are prohibited from releasing the full inspection reports, which include even more detailed accounts than those provided in the memos.

Cheryl Moon-Sirianni, the longtime executive of PennDOT’s District 11, which includes Allegheny County, explained why the state should not release these documents to the public:

“Not everyone can read an inspection report and they will glean information from there, and eventually run with it, that’s not true. We hope you’re counting on us to let you know that in critical need, we would close the bridge and explain why.

She also cited the potential for terrorist attacks on the bridges should weaknesses in the spans be disclosed.

Brant Houston, the Knight Chair in Investigative and Enterprise Reporting at the University of Illinois, said he disagreed with the state’s position, citing similar actions taken by government agencies in the aftermath of the deadly 2007 Minneapolis bridge collapse and the September 11 terrorist attacks. . Too often, he said, it became a tactic to simply withhold information the public had a right to know.

The notes are detrimental to the government because they describe in detail the dilapidated state of the bridges

Hota GangaRao, Professor of Engineering and Director of the Constructed Facilities Center, West Virginia University

“There was a bridge collapse. People are worried. They want to know where things stand,” he said. “The argument that the public isn’t wise enough to understand it, or the reporters aren’t wise enough to explain it, is a really poor excuse to shut down the news.”

He noted that the data obtained by the Post-Gazette was once available on the state’s website and then deleted after PennDOT officials were notified of their own disclosures.

“Take [the notes] down and saying you can’t have them is really not responsible,” he said. “The responsible thing for officials to do is to explain what that means.”

When creating a searchable database, the Post-Gazette also consulted several engineering experts who work with bridge inspection reports and said there was nothing in the documents that needed to be hidden.

“I don’t know if these ratings make a bridge more vulnerable to attack,” said Roberto Leon, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech. “If this is a security issue, how long has it been [the notes section] been there? »

Like Mr. Leon, Hota GangaRao, an engineering professor and director of the Constructed Facilities Center at West Virginia University, looked at a sample of the ratings of several mediocre bridges in Pennsylvania and said he was struck by the conditions.

“The notes are detrimental to the government because they describe in detail the dilapidated state of the bridges,” he said. “People would be right to ask, why have they been dithering to fix this bridge for so long? Why have they neglected it for so long?

“I personally don’t think the notes should be hidden,” he said. “The public, in my opinion, should see these four to five lines of notes. This would inform the public.

Sean D. Hamill: [email protected] or 412-263-2579 or Twitter: @SeanDHamill

Development: Laura Malt Schneiderman