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Audit Bashes Louisiana Bridge Checks

Monday, April 14, 2014

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Louisiana’s nearly 2,000 structurally deficient bridges aren’t getting the attention they deserve because of neglected inspections and billions in backlogged maintenance, state auditors have concluded.

Despite federal mandates, the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development either did not inspect or did not appropriately document the inspection of more than 1,500 bridges, according to a performance audit issued April 2 by Legislative State Auditor Daryl G. Purpera.

“The state Department of Transportation and Development needs to do a more timely job of inspecting the 12,905 bridges in Louisiana and adequately document those inspections,” Purpera says in the report.

LaDOTD bridge performance audit / I-10 Calcasieu Bridge

LaDOTD has a required timeframe to inspect 6,731 of its bridges. However, a state performance audit of the department says it didn't check 1,508 of the structures.

Louisiana's legislatively appointed State Auditor serves as the state's watchdog of public spending.

Deficiencies Undocumented

In 2013, 14 percent (or 1,806) of the state’s 12,905 bridges were “structurally deficient” by Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) standards. That’s an increase of 94 bridges since 2009, the report says.

Louisiana has the 13th highest number of structurally deficient bridges by state, the report says, citing Transportation for America.

The state maintains, owns and operates 751 of the 1,806 structurally deficient bridges, and is solely responsible for their inspection and maintenance.

The other 1,055 are operated by a bridge owner (usually a local government). While LaDOTD is responsible for inspecting those bridges as well as its own, the owner is responsible for repairs.

Federal regulations require LaDOTD to inspect all bridges located on its public roads. But based on the FHWA’s annual compliance review requirements, “DOTD did not inspect all bridges in accordance with federal requirements during fiscal year 2013,” the report says.

Also, the department either “did not inspect or could not provide documentation that it had inspected 1,508 of the 6,731 bridges that required an inspection within the required timeframe" of every two to five years.

81 Inspectors for 13K Bridges

Louisiana’s bridges have an average age of 35 years and carry about 76 million vehicles per year, auditors said. As of March 2013, LaDOTD had closed 39 bridges for “public safety reasons.”

The audit focused on LaDOTD's Bridge Inspection Program, analyzing data from 2008 to 2013. Auditors also interviewed LaDOTD and FHWA staff, conducted walkthroughs with bridge inspectors, and visited bridges throughout the state.

Sherri LeBas, the department's secretary, issued a response, saying, "DOTD has 81 bridge inspectors that have the sole responsibility to inspect all 13,000 ... bridges in this state."

The agency inspects 7,500 to 8,000 bridges each year, she said.

Missing the Mark

LaDOTD complied with nine of the 23 FHWA bridge inspection performance measures and was “substantially compliant or conditionally compliant” with the other 14, according to the report.

The performance measures focus on five areas: bridge inspection organization, qualifications of personnel, inspection frequency, inspection procedures and bridge inventory.

FHWA bridge inspection
Wikimedia Commons / CTtcg (left) Christopherlin (right)

Almost half of LaDOTD's funding backlog for structurally deficient bridges is tied to three structures: the Calcasieu River Bridge (left), the Huey P. Long Bridge in Baton Rouge (right), and the U.S. 11 Bridge between New Orleans and Slidell (not pictured).

Compliance shortcomings, according to the auditors, include:

  • Insufficient processes for identifying all bridges in the inventory that required a load rating;
  • Using an outdated script to electronically compile the bridge inventory, causing some inspection records to be out of date; and
  • Not entering bridge inspection data into the database within the required timeframes.

Making Changes

LaDOTD has filed plans with the federal government detailing the steps it will take to get those 14 performance measures into full compliance by 2017, and FHWA has approved the steps, the report says.

LeBas detailed some of the actions taken so far, such as adding personnel to each district and dedicating an engineer to the bridge program in each district.

She also noted that despite the lapses cited, there were no areas where LaDOTD was deemed non-compliant.

Non-compliance can lead to a decrease or loss of federal funding for bridge work. The agency relies on aid from both the state Transportation Trust Fund and the Federal Highway Trust Fund.

In fiscal year 2013, the federal government provided 75 percent of the $184 million Louisiana spent for bridge maintenance and construction, the report says.

Billions in Backlog

Each year, LaDOTD submits a State Highway and Bridge Needs Report to the legislature to estimate the funding it will need to repair or replace state-funded highways and bridges.

Transportation for America
Transportation for America

Louisiana ranks 13th in structurally deficient bridges by state, according to Transportation for America.

“DOTD estimates that Louisiana has a backlog of $2.7 billion in bridge maintenance and construction projects, primarily consisting of structurally deficient bridges,” the report says.

About $2.4 billion of the total is for repairing structurally deficient bridges, and nearly 50 percent is related to just three bridges: the US 11 Bridge connecting New Orleans to Slidell over Lake Pontchartrain, the Calcasieu River Bridge that carries I-10 over the Calcasieu River in Lakes Charles, and the Huey P. Long Bridge that carries US 190 over the Mississippi River in Baton Rouge.

“Because of the limited funding available to address all of the bridges in the backlog, DOTD has been unable to significantly reduce the number of structurally deficient bridges from 2009 to 2013,” the auditors say.

For highways and bridges combined, the department says its backlog reaches $12.1 billion. 

Setting Priorities

According to the report, the LaDOTD has a Bridge Preservation Selection Committee to prioritize which bridges need the funding first.

"To make the best use of funds available, the DOTD uses an established process of bridge inspection and prioritization of projects that will address the bridges that are in the most need and are on high traffic or truck routes," LeBas said.

"If a bridge is found to be unsafe, DOTD has the authority to, and will, close it until repairs are made."


Tagged categories: Bridges; Department of Transportation (DOT); Federal Highway Administration (FHWA); Government; Inspection; Maintenance coating work; Maintenance programs

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