Post-Gazette reveals secret inspection data that state has banned from public view
Redds Mill Road Bridge is small, just 67 feet long, crossing the picturesque Pigeon Creek as it meanders through Fallowfield in Washington County.
Though only about 350 vehicles drive over the span a day, the severe decay that left a gaping hole in the bridge was enough to alarm inspectors who turned out in October to examine the aging structure.
“The 2021 Interim Inspection has identified significant additional deterioration on the underside of the deck,” the inspectors wrote in the “Notes” section of their report.
They urged immediate repairs because of what was found. “The placement of a steel plate was required due to severe deterioration on the underside of the deck,” the inspector noted. “The Township subsequently installed the plate on 10/21/21.”
Though those details were etched in a report “note” — critical disclosures about the bridge’s condition — and sent to the state Department of Transportation, the data is not available to the people who cross the bridge in their vehicles each day or to the residents of the community who have known the span for generations.
The memos for Redds Mill Road Bridge are among thousands that are written by inspectors — notes that accompany inspections of more than 20,000 bridges — and once posted on PennDOT’s website, but taken down in the wake of the disastrous collapse of Pittsburgh’s Fern Hollow Bridge this year that left 10 people injured and six vehicles crushed in the wreckage.
Searchable database of inspection notes:
Just before the data was removed, the Post-Gazette obtained the now secret database of inspection notes that show the details of nearly every bridge from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia, including the conditions of more than 3,000 spans that are rated poor.
At a time when such information is concealed — including the inspection reports for Fern Hollow — the disclosures offer a rare glimpse into spans that are badly in need of repair or replacement, and in some cases, not getting any help despite cautionary remarks by inspectors.
In Columbia County last year, inspectors found that a bridge was threatened with “critical deficiencies” because of severe deterioration. In Chester County last October, inspectors responded to a call from a member of the public warning them about “the decaying bridge” following a prior inspection that found “[s]agging bottom of sidewalk slabs.”
“The public should have a right to see that,” said Bruce Smith, chairman of the Fallowfield board of supervisors, about the assessment of Redds Mill Road Bridge, which will soon be renovated. “I see no reason to hide details like that.”
Mr. Smith said the notes kept by inspectors about the bridge in his township were strikingly accurate and provide a peek into the aging infrastructure of a local landmark. “The hole we repaired there, you could see straight through the [bridge] deck right down to the creek. It was bad.”
Bridges mentioned in this story
The notes by the inspectors, which the Post-Gazette is making available in an online searchable database, were once open to the public through searching on the Department of Transportation website.
But when the Post-Gazette began asking questions in early February about the origins of the notes on the One Map website, PennDOT removed the data, as well as another section that identified people involved in the inspection of each bridge.
In early March, the state confirmed it had stripped the information from the site, claiming the notes were not open to the public under state and federal law. The state has also turned down repeated requests to see full inspection reports.
The lack of disclosure raises questions about what should be available to the public — people who are most at risk in the event of infrastructure disasters — and what should be withheld because of the complexity of the reports.
For PennDOT, the reasoning for withholding the inspection data is the public may misinterpret the notes or would not understand them — let alone be able to digest a full report. But also that sharing either the notes or a full report would pose a potential security risk.
“You wouldn’t believe the folks that want to do harm and try to do things to hurt others and we’re reluctant to put inspection reports out there that would show there’s a weakness in a structure, for fear that someone might do something at that location,” said Cheryl Moon-Sirianni, executive for PennDOT’s District 11, which includes Allegheny County.
Advocates say there has never been a credible threat on bridges by terrorists in Pennsylvania and that the public — which is the most at risk — is capable of understanding the rudiments of inspection reports.
“They’re the people we answer to,” said Chris Young, a longtime Columbia County commissioner and advocate for the county’s covered bridges that are a major tourist attraction. “If there’s something I should keep from the public, it’s probably something I shouldn’t be doing.”
In the case of Fern Hollow, several citizens warned the city about the severe deterioration in the years prior to the collapse, and in one incident, a local engineer even tweeted out a picture of the decay that was later acknowledged by city officials. But the major repairs were never carried out, records show.
In other bridges across the state, the writing by inspectors reveals serious concerns that were not generally known to the communities, even if local officials knew a bridge was in need of repairs.
For instance, an inspector wrote last May about the state-owned Wildwood Road Bridge in Hampton: “Numerous shallow spalls [areas of deteriorating concrete] were noted throughout all spans along with reflective cracking of the beams. Continue to monitor this bridge.” Though it’s only 40 years old, state officials say its poor design has doomed it, and by next year, it will be largely replaced.
Inspectors in 2021 at the Esther Furnace Covered Bridge in Columbia County wrote that “additional decay [of the bridge’s end posts] could result in high priority or critical deficiencies and/or closure of the bridge.”
Mr. Young said he believed the full inspections — which include the notes — should be a public record. At the Post-Gazette’s request, he provided the most recent inspections for two of the county’s 23 covered bridges: Esther Furnace and Richards Covered Bridge.
He said getting the public’s interest can help, “because the public can drive funding.”
Security and understanding concerns
It’s unclear how long the notes were publicly available on PennDOT’s website before they were taken down, but the records show that some of the observations date to 2010 — not long after PennDOT significantly upgraded what became One Map.
The agency finally began adding ratings online in 2007 after criticism was raised about the lack of data following the collapse that year of a Minneapolis bridge that killed 13 people and injured more than 100.
“Before that happened, there was little online about bridge inspections” in Pennsylvania, said Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the PA NewsMedia Association. “They put this up to provide information to the public.”
Two weeks after the Minneapolis disaster, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security sent a bulletin to state officials across the country warning that disclosing bridge reports may pave the way for terrorists to target vulnerable spans, and recommended that access to inspection reports be restricted.
The memo encouraged state officials to “protect such information and prevent adversaries from exploiting it for use and conducting attacks.”
Ultimately, though, federal investigators and experts concluded the collapse of the Minneapolis span had nothing to do with terrorists, but a crucial design flaw and the sheer weight on the bridge during the breakdown.
Ms. Moon-Sirianni said she recalled instances in Pennsylvania where items like backpacks that were suspicious were removed from bridge sites, but she could not name a credible threat against a bridge in the state in the past.
Alexis Campbell, PennDOT’s spokeswoman, said in an email that state law “requires that bridge inspection reports remain confidential,” and referred to the state’s vehicle code that allows “safety studies” to remain confidential in legal and other proceedings.
However, the law she cited refers to “traffic accidents,” Ms. Melewsky pointed out, and “It seems a leap to apply this provision to routine bridge safety inspections.”
Moreover, Ms. Melewsky said, the state’s Right to Know Law — which covers the release of all state documents — does not require confidentiality for bridge records.
“PennDOT and the city can give you as much information as they feel is appropriate if no other law mandates otherwise,” she said. “They’re choosing not to exercise that discretion.”
Though PennDOT officials view inspection notes and reports as security issues, not all states share that view.
Of the six nearest Pennsylvania, three – New Jersey, Virginia and West Virginia – ban access to inspection reports. But three others – Maryland, New York and Ohio – allow the public to see the reports.
“We view our inspection reports as being public information,” said Tim Keller, Ohio’s state bridge engineer and the administrator of the state’s Office of Structural Engineering. “If people ask for them, we give it to them.”
Both PennDOT and the city turned down requests to release the Fern Hollow inspection reports that were written prior to the disaster when the span collapsed into a 90-foot-deep ravine below.
But notes in the state’s secret database show that in light of the poor condition of the span, inspectors as recently as September said they wanted to ensure proper weight limits were posted.
As far back as 2014, the state found enough problems with the bridge that it said inspections should be launched every year instead of every 24 months. But inspectors apparently raised no red flags about a temporary fix to a deteriorating, X-shaped steel support on the west side of the bridge. Experts say now that temporary fix appears to have led to a critical failure.
Changing the law?
State Sen. Jim Brewster, D-McKeesport, who sits on the Senate’s Transportation Committee, said he has been worried since the Fern Hollow Bridge collapse, and the emergency closure the following month of Versailles Avenue Bridge in his hometown, that “there’s not enough known about what’s going on with these bridges.”
Still, he is not sure that making inspection reports public would be the solution.
“It could very well be that someone could cause a catastrophic incident by knowing the structure of that bridge,” he said. “But I don’t know if having an inspection report would help them.”
A look at the notes from inspectors for bridges across the state show the vivid details of the deteriorating conditions of other poorly rated spans.
A series of nine separate inspection notes in the database between 2015 and 2021 for the 36-foot-long, city-owned Sixth Street Bridge over Brush Creek in Jeannette show the ongoing deterioration of two of the small bridge’s beams.
The beams deteriorated so badly that in 2020 inspectors wrote: “Beam 1 and 11 section loss advanced from previous inspection. 1/4″ steel plates had been tack welded to webs of Beams 1 and 11. Plates are insufficiently attached to transmit load. Concrete barriers placed on deck to remove live load from Beam 11.”
Plates are insufficiently attached to transmit load.
Inspection report for the Sixth Street Bridge in Jeannette
A state-owned bridge along Route 22 over Mickley Road in Whitehall, Lehigh County had a litany of problems when inspectors visited in June that made it clear why it is due for renovations later this year: “There was an increase in deterioration of the approach roadways. There are several new spalls with exposed rebar in the approach slabs… The joint is not watertight. There was an increase in section loss to Beam 12 at the near abutment with web crippling beyond the centerline of bearing.”
Notes from an inspection last year of yet another covered bridge in Columbia County – Richards Covered Bridge near Elysburg – demonstrated just why the bridge has a 3-ton weight limit: “There is additional decay to the timber truss member U4L5 right truss, the interior near left low chord and the interior far right low chord. There was a slight increase in the bearing loss below the steel plate shims below the far left low chord. The displacement of the near left low chord splice increased since the 2020 inspection.”
Mr. Young, the county commissioner and covered-bridge-advocate, said he’s perplexed over 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 need to be closed, we’ll close them. We have six or so that are no longer allowed to have vehicles on them anyway, but we maintain them through a nonprofit.”
“If the public doesn’t like what they see, they’ll let us know,” he said. “I just don’t know why you wouldn’t want the public to know. It makes no sense.”
Data: Joel Jacobs
Some states open bridge inspections — others like PA keep them secret
Debates over bridge disclosures have been waged for years
Despite the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation’s decision to keep bridge inspection reports and notes of those reviews from public view, the Post-Gazette is publishing the notes in a searchable database for more than 22,000 bridges.
One reason the news organization decided to disclose the information is to add to the public’s understanding of the backlog of bridges that are rated “poor” across the state — more than 3,000.
The Post-Gazette’s decision was also driven by the fact that three nearby states – Maryland, New York and Ohio – make the reports fully available upon request.
“The public deserves to see these reports,” said Stan Wischnowski, the Post-Gazette’s executive editor, adding that revealing the conditions of the bridges “ensures a more informed public and promotes a sense of transparency the citizens of the Commonwealth richly deserve.”
In addition to the inspection notes, Pennsylvania officials say they are prohibited from releasing the full inspection reports, which include even more detailed narratives than those provided in the memos.
Cheryl Moon-Sirianni, the longtime executive for PennDOT District 11, which includes Allegheny County, explained why the state should not release those records to the public:
“Not everybody can read an inspection report and they will glean some information from there, and possibly run with it, that’s not true. We would hope that you would rely on us to let you know when there is definitely a critical need that we would shut the bridge down and we’d explain why.”
She also cited the potential of terrorist attacks on the bridges in the event any weaknesses of the spans are divulged.
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 action taken by government agencies in the wake of the deadly Minneapolis bridge collapse in 2007 and the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Too often, he said, it became a tactic for simply withholding information that the public had a right to know.
The notes are damaging to the government because they describe in detail the state of disrepair of the bridges
Hota GangaRao, engineering professor and director of the Constructed Facilities Center, West Virginia University
“There’s been a bridge collapse. People are concerned. They want to know how things stand,” he said. ”The argument that the public is not wise enough to figure it out, or journalists aren’t wise enough to explain it is really a poor excuse for closing off information.”
He noted that the data obtained by the Post-Gazette was once available on the state’s website, and then taken down after PennDOT officials were informed of their own disclosures.
“To take [the notes] down and say you can’t have them is really not responsible,” he said. “The responsible thing for public officials to do is explain what those mean.”
In creating a searchable database, the Post-Gazette also consulted with several engineering experts who work with bridge inspection reports and said there was nothing in the documents that needed to be concealed.
“I don’t know that these notes make a bridge more susceptible to attack,” said Roberto Leon, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech. “If this is a security issue, how long has [the notes section] been out there?”
Like Mr. Leon, Hota GangaRao, an engineering professor and director of the Constructed Facilities Center at West Virginia University, viewed a sampling of the notes from several poor bridges in Pennsylvania and said he was struck by the conditions.
“The notes are damaging to the government because they describe in detail the state of disrepair of the bridges,” he said. “People would be right to ask: Why are they procrastinating to repair this bridge for so long? Why have they neglected it for so long?”
“I personally don’t feel that the notes should be hidden,” he said. “The public in my opinion should see these four to five lines of notes. It would inform the public.”
Development: Laura Malt Schneiderman