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January 12, 2010

DOT Slow to Act on Defective Bridges

DOT Needs to Step Up Repair Efforts with Dozens of Bridges at Risk

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The state Department of Transportation (DOT) did not address 33.8 percent of serious highway bridge defects found by its inspectors within the required time frame, allowing hazardous conditions, including possible failures, to linger much longer than they should, according to an audit released today by State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli.

Separately, a report released by DiNapoli today highlights the fact that there are currently 93 bridges in use in New York State with a safety rating at or below that given to the Lake Champlain Bridge prior to its closure last year. The report notes that three of the state’s major spans are in need of serious repairs or improvements.

“Thousands of New Yorkers use these bridges everyday,” DiNapoli said. “And thousands of businesses rely on those same bridges for the delivery of goods and services. This is about public safety and economic survival. The closing of the Lake Champlain Bridge is a wake up call. New York has ignored its infrastructure for decades, putting New Yorkers and New York businesses in jeopardy.”

The DOT audit found that between January 1, 2006 and June 24, 2008, a total of 1,280 red flag defects were identified on 228 state and 495 locally-owned highway bridges. DiNapoli’s auditors reviewed the records for 204 defects, covering 83 state and 121 locally owned bridges. They found that 69 of the 204 defects (33.8 percent) pertaining to 25 state and 16 locally owned bridges were not addressed within the required time frame.

Auditors discovered that on average it took more than 17 weeks to take action on 41 of the red-flagged bridges. If a serious or “red flag” structural defect is identified, the bridge owner, usually a state agency, local government or private owner must be notified within seven work days.

The owner then has six weeks in which to close the bridge, repair the defect or take alternative action to ensure the bridge is safe to use.

The delays were especially long in the Binghamton and Buffalo regions, where it took, on average, more than seven months for 18 red flag defects to be addressed.

Auditors also found that the DOT’s regional offices are sometimes slow to notify bridge owners about defects, including serious red flag defects, and do not always follow up with bridge owners when their six-week deadline was approaching.

In especially serious cases, the bridge owner is supposed to be notified immediately and appropriate interim action is supposed to be decided on within 24 hours. In one serious case examined by auditors, the bridge owner was not notified for five days. For five other serious defects, the DOT could not provide documentation that notice occurred within 24 hours.

The audit recommends DOT take several steps, including:

  • Develop a plan to address the causes for delays in addressing red flag defects and remind the regional offices of the need to provide timely notifications to bridge owners when red flag defects are identified.
  • Monitor the performance of the regional offices in meeting red flag defect reporting requirements and take corrective actions when the notifications are not timely.
  • Conduct random audits of the regional offices’ bridge files to determine whether all the required documentation is being kept in the files, and take corrective action when documentation practices do not comply with the requirements.

DOT officials said they have taken steps to implement several of the audit’s recommendations.

Click here for a complete copy of the audit, including DOT’s response.

Click here for a list of the affected bridges.

The report, titled “Chokepoints: New York’s Deteriorating Bridges,” found that three of New York’s major bridges – the Tappan Zee, the Peace Bridge and the Ogdensburg-Prescott International Bridge – are in urgent need of improvements. If any one of those bridges failed or was partially closed, the impact would be severe for the residents, businesses and communities that depend on them. The Peace Bridge was rated lower than the Lake Champlain Bridge by the DOT in 2009.

Two counties, Erie and Onondaga, had more than five bridges rated in worse shape than the Lake Champlain Bridge.

Click here for a copy of the report.

In 2009 DiNapoli’s office released reports highlighting infrastructure needs across the state and on the Dedicated Highway Bridge and Trust Fund. The infrastructure report found that at current spending rates it is projected that New York’s local infrastructure needs, estimated at $250.1 billion, may be under funded by as much as $80 billion. The comptroller has also reported that the state’s Dedicated Highway and Bridge Trust Fund has been limited in the amounts available to pay for highway and bridge capital projects because substantial amounts are used to pay for state agency operations and debt service payments.

Click here for the August report on local government infrastructure and capital planning needs.

Click here for the October report on the Trust Fund.

Click here the audio from the Comptroller.



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