Months after Pennsylvania officials stripped crucial information about poorly rated bridges from public view, a veteran state lawmaker is pushing for databases that will alert people to the condition of thousands of spans statewide.
Concerned that the collapse of the Fern Hollow Bridge in Pittsburgh and other bridge failures are not getting the attention they deserve, Sen. James Brewster, D-McKeesport, wants the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation to create a searchable website that contains information about every bridge. It would also include quarterly updates on their conditions and ratings by whatever local government — county or city — owns the spans.
Under the plan, each local government would also be required to maintain its own separate public database with the same information in a show of transparency that could help the public better track deficiencies.
The proposal comes after a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette investigation in April revealed the state had concealed key information about the bridges — including inspection notes about the spans — in the wake of the disastrous failure of Fern Hollow in January, when nine people were injured and six vehicles fell into the ravine below.
The Post-Gazette found that the state was displaying detailed inspection notes about bridges on its website, as well as the names of the inspectors. But the state removed the notes and inspectors' names after the newspaper began asking questions about the information.
In some cases, the notes reveal glaring problems on the spans — including severe deterioration or even holes in the decks — that need to be addressed.
Though the information is now off-limits, the Post-Gazette obtained the data from the state's website and made it available in one of the first searchable databases of its kind.
Under Brewster's proposal, the state would be compelled to display the notes, which are included in every inspection report, so the public has a better glimpse of any concerns raised about the bridges, including deterioration or other breakdowns that are found during the visits. In addition, the names of the inspectors and the firms they work for would be public.
"We do need to know if a bridge is bad, why is that? If you rated it poor, why did you do that?" said Brewster, a member of the Senate Transportation Committee. "We don't need the full, 100-page engineering report and recommendations for repair in the database."
In light of the state's efforts to withhold the records, Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the PA NewsMedia Association, applauded the plan, saying it was a helpful step toward better transparency on bridge records.