Bridge condition details not easy to find, decipher

By Ryan Keith

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – Illinoisans who want to know about the safety of local bridges can’t get the information easily. Deciphering what they do get is even harder.

The Illinois Department of Transportation won’t release inspection reports that provide detailed information about bridge conditions. Citing fears of terrorism, agency officials argue those reports are not public documents.

Nor does the state provide easy access, such as a Web site, to the ratings that are used to sum up a bridge’s condition. Local and federal governments don’t provide much help either.

But some officials will release inspection reports. Douglas County, for instance, provided four years of inspection reports on a poorly rated Kaskaskia River bridge Friday when asked for them.

Local officials say they have rarely, if ever, gotten requests for the highly technical documents, which assess categories such as deck geometry and minimum lateral underclearance.

An Associated Press analysis of federal transportation data found more than 2,400 bridges in Illinois are deemed structurally deficient. More than 1,500 of those have worse structural ratings than the Minneapolis bridge that collapsed last month, killing 13 and drawing new national attention to bridge safety.

The AP review was based on a detailed federal database covering everything from a bridge’s age to general condition.

But the database didn’t contain specifics from the reports that state and local inspectors fill out when they go over the spans every year or two.

The ratings give a general explanation of why a bridge might, for instance, get a “poor” rating of 4 on its deck. But they don’t spell out whether the rating is because of potholes or a flaw in the material, or exactly where the problem area is located – details that might be included in the inspection report.

The Federal Highway Administration does provide the ratings on its Web site, but it’s not much help to the average visitor. The information must be converted into a database and deciphered with a guide to all the numeric codes that are used.

Spokesman Mike Claffey said IDOT does not plan to make bridge ratings available on its own Web site. “We certainly have been explaining to the press and to the public over the last month our bridge inspection process,” Claffey said.

In refusing to release the inspectors’ reports, IDOT cited a portion of the Illinois Freedom of Information Act that pertains to security matters. It also cited a letter from the governor’s Illinois Terrorism Task Force.

“Release of information related to vulnerabilities at a specific location could compromise the security of that bridge,” the group’s chairman, Mike Chamness, wrote in an Aug. 24 letter.

Claffey would not elaborate on the potential dangers, saying only that engineers have been concerned since 2001 that such information could be used to damage bridges.

Township officials say they don’t get many public requests for bridge information but it is available if requested.

“That obviously is a public record,” said Bryan Smith, executive director for the Township Officials of Illinois.

Douglas County Engineer Jim Crane also said the inspection reports are available to the public.

An expert who has worked for three decades as a bridge engineer says he’s never heard of a public request for bridge inspection information.

John Frauenhoffer, head of a Champaign engineering firm and past president of the Illinois Society of Professional Engineers, said citizens likely would need help to understand the jargon found on inspection reports if they did get them.

But he hopes interested citizens aren’t deterred from seeking the information.

“The public should have access to it,” Frauenhoffer said. “It ought to be available and it shouldn’t be impossible to get.”