Questionable MDoT Database Compromises Auditor General's Bridge Inspection Performance Audit
The Michigan Office of the Auditor General released its overdue performance audit of MDoT’s Bridge Inspection Program Friday afternoon, just in time to miss last week’s news cycle. Weekend news reports focused on bridge inspection frequency, but there is a more fundamental question which should be answered first: Are the MDoT bridge records which were audited complete and correct? Even remotely so?
The Federal Highway Administration collects bridge data from the State DoT’s and other sources to create and maintain the National Bridge Inventory. It is supposed to list all American bridges which have roads running across them or below them, along with ownership, identifiers, and condition data. Condition data is given as a number from 0 (failed) through 9 (good beyond current standards). These numbers then get converted into the descriptors you read in the press, such as ‘structurally deficient’, poor, good, etc.
The MOAG performance audit is replete with statistics derived from MDoT’s bridge inventory database which show – no surprise – that some of Michigan’s bridges are in poor shape. You can see MOAG’s statistics as of April 30th, 2014 in the audit or go to a searchable database of individual bridge data across the entire country, as of 2012, brought to us by Alexander Svirsky of MassRoads.com.
A first pass at the MOAG bridge inspection audit involved looking at the worst condition category of bridges, those rated 0 or 1 for failed or imminent failure. Going through the Wayne County owned bridge summary on Page 51 of the new MOAG audit, I was heartened to see that Wayne County has no condition category 0 or 1 bridges. But there are at least two zero condition category major bridges in Wayne County across the Rouge River, so let’s say I am experiencing a little cognitive dissonance just now.
The most spectacular and notorious bridge failure in Michigan during the 21st Century occurred in the early morning hours of 12 May 2013 to the double leaf bascule type drawbridge carrying Jefferson Avenue over the Rouge River on the Detroit/River Rouge border. The Wayne County Road Commission employee operating the bridge opened it to allow the iron ore carrier Herbert C. Jackson to pass up river, then put the bridge back down immediately before the Jackson came to the bridge. The allision was spectacular, bending both steel leaves, wrecking its elevating mechanism, and doing catastrophic damage to its concrete foundation & anchor points.
The Jefferson Avenue bascule bridge over the Rouge River on the Detroit/River Rouge border is a total loss. The leaves of this bridge were jacked up and welded in place so at least ships could pass. This bridge will require complete removal and replacement, but Wayne County is a dead man walking financially so this $ 100 million range project is languishing. A fun side note: The Herbert C. Jackson only suffered about $ 5,000 in damage during this allison, a real tribute to the Great Lakes Engineering Works in River Rouge which made great ships back in the 1950’s.
Now you might be excusing a single bridge omission from the audited MDoT database, but you should know that the next bascule road bridge up the Rouge River was also failed and under reconstruction on April 30th, 2014. The M-85 Fort Street bascule bridge over the Rouge River on the Dearborn/Detroit border was taken out of service in July 2013 for a complete reconstruction which is still ongoing. This used to be the most famous Rouge River bridge due to its association with the ‘Ford Hunger March’ during 1932. The Michigan Historic Site marker for the Ford Hunger March is actually affixed to the bridge operating pulpit. It is sort of difficult to overlook this bridge, but MDoT did.
So in a single Michigan County we have two major bridges which are most certainly failed and out of service, but which are not properly represented in the MOAG bridge statistical summaries. We do know that both of these bridges did appear in the 2012 FHWA NBI bridge inventory, before they were taken out of service. MOAG spot checked MDoT bridge inventory data in their
quest audit to provide talking points for Proposal 2015-01, but the MDoT bridge database clearly leaves something to be desired. A subject for the next MOAG bridge inspection performance audit five years from now or perhaps grounds for reopening the latest MOAG audit?
There are lots of other fun facts which can be teased out of the 2015 MOAG performance audit of MDoT bridge inspections, particularly when it is compared to the 2010 MOAG performance audit of MDoT bridge inspections, but first it would be good to know whether we can place much credence in an audit of sketchy records.