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Audit Finds Skipped Bridge Inspections

Monday, June 9, 2014

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The agency that oversees several New York City bridges failed to perform 47 inspections on structures that were already identified as potentially hazardous, a state audit claims.

On Friday (June 6), New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli released his audit report of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey's highway bridge inspection procedures.

The report, which analyzed inspections performed on the agency's New York bridges between Jan. 1, 2008 and June 21, 2013, says the Port Authority waited over a year, and in some cases even longer, to inspect bridges already determined to have dangerous conditions.

The Port Authority disputed the report, contending it spends billions of dollars on bridge upkeep and repair and that the audit's findings amount to a misinterpretation of inspection standards.

Port Authority of New York and New Jersey
Images: Port Authority of New York and New Jersey

An audit from NY State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli says the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey skipped dozens of inspections on bridge's with potentially dangerous conditions.

The Comptroller's office sent a draft of its findings to the Port Authority May 19, and considered the agency's comments when preparing the final report.

Correlating Deficiencies

Since 2010, the New York State Department of Transportation has allowed public authorities that own and inspect bridges to develop their own procedures for identifying bridge deficiencies—as long as they are similar to the ones defined in NYSDOT's Bridge Inspection Manual.

At a minimum, these public authorities are required to have a formal procedure to determine how their identifications correlate to the ones used by NYSDOT.

While the NYSDOT uses a system of "flags," the Port Authority defines deficiencies by a series of "conditions":

  • An "immediate condition" describes a serious structural defect;
  • A "priority condition" is a potentially hazardous condition, which, if left unattended beyond the next anticipated inspection, would likely become dangerous; and
  • A "safety condition" is one that presents a clear and present danger to vehicles and pedestrians, but would not result in a structural failure or collapse.

According to the audit, the Port Authority sent a memorandum to NYSDOT in 2010 stating its "conditions" were equivalent to their "flags."

47 Missed Inspections

The Port Authority is responsible for four highway bridges, two traffic tunnels and five airports for a total of 195 uniquely identified components. Out of the 195, 116 components are reported to New York, and 79 are reported to New Jersey.

The audit sampled 48 conditions that the Port Authority had already identified and found the agency inspected the highway bridges every two years as required by federal and state law.

The Port Authority disputed the audit, noting that none of its highway bridges are classified as "structurally deficient," while 12 percent of bridges nationwide have that classification.

However, it did not perform interim inspections specified by NYSDOT's system, including having a licensed professional engineer certify the structures as safe.

Fifteen of the conditions were classified as "immediate," 16 as "priority," and 17 as "safety."

According to the audit, the Port Authority skipped 47 interim inspections on bridges that had priority conditions open for over a year. Additionally, an immediate condition was left uninspected for 332 days while it awaited repairs. Out of the 17 safety conditions the report sampled, 10 were not repaired for over two years; three of those were open for five years.

Of all the structures sampled, the George Washington Bridge had the most conditions, with 25; the Goethals Bridge, Outerbridge Crossing, Bayonne Bridge, Lincoln Tunnel, LaGuardia Airport and John F. Kennedy Airport each had four conditions. 

'Convenient' Classification

The Port Authority responded to the audit, claiming it wasn't required to perform interim inspections because it uses a different condition classification system than the NYSDOT.

But the auditors disagreed with this reasoning, citing the 2010 memo identifying equivalent condition categories between the Port Authority and NYSDOT.

"[Port] Authority officials cannot conveniently decide that the categories it used and the [NYSDOT] equivalent did not apply to the highway bridge inspections and repairs reviewed during the audit," the auditors say.

The report adds that the Port Authority "did not even meet its own time frames for repairing deficiencies."

The audit notes numerous discrepancies between the bridge inspection procedures of the  NYSDOT and those of the Port Authority—a matter the Port Authority says is an issue of administrative documentation, "not our lack of response to complete repairs."

According to the audit, the Port Authority's procedures "merely require" that safety conditions be addressed "as soon as possible"—a procedure the agency claimed had been approved as a departure from the NYSDOT's manual.

"Yet [Port] Authority officials could not provide evidence they have received the [NYSDOT]'s written approval for any departure from the Manual," the audit notes.

In its response, the Port Authority added that it performed follow-up and immediate inspections, but some of them were not documented.

The auditors shot back: "It is difficult to understand how the Authority would contract with firms whose professional employees did not fully document their work."

Skirting the Structural Scale

NYSDOT's bridge inspectors assess the individual parts of a bridge and rate a structure's condition on a scale from 1.0 to 7.0; ratings of 5.0 or higher are considered good condition, and 7.0 is considered new condition.

The state considers a bridge deficient if its rating is less than 5.0, which indicates that deterioration is at a level that requires corrective maintenance or rehabilitation but does not mean the bridge is unsafe.

Based on the NYSDOT's rating system, well over half of the Port Authority's New York components (74 out of 116) had condition ratings below 5.0 as of December 2012, the report says.

In its response, the Port Authority contends it has a "robust structural integrity program," through which it expends "significant annual resources."

The Port Authority defended its program further, noting that none of its highway bridges are classified as "structurally deficient," while 12 percent of bridges nationwide have that classification.

"In summary, the [Port Authority] believes that the key finding of this audit is essentially one of administrative documentation and not our lack of response to complete repairs.

"Additionally, it is clear by the substance of the report that, a misinterpretation by the auditors remained in regards to the equivalency of the NYSDOT and [Port Authority] repair categories," the agency responded.

The Chairman of the Port Authority is expected to advise DiNapoli within 90 days of the final report on the steps it will take, if any, to implement recommendations.

   

Tagged categories: Bridges; Department of Transportation (DOT); Inspection; Roads/Highways

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