A panel of engineering experts convened after a crash last year in which a truck broke through a barrier wall and plunged off the Bay Bridge has recommended that the Maryland Transportation Authority beef up its procedures for inspecting the state's toll bridges and tunnels and open the process to more scrutiny from the public.
But the panel, made up of seven top transportation engineers from around the country, rejected contentions that the authority should commission an independent inspection of the Bay Bridge. It found that changes adopted in recent years rotate inspections among three teams, ensuring that a variety of people view any problems on the bridge.
The panel was set up by Gov. Martin O'Malley after a fatal tractor-trailer crash on the Bay Bridge led to the discovery Aug. 10 that the metal devices that hold in place the Jersey barriers that make up the eastbound span's wall had been weakened by corrosion. That finding led to weeks of lane closings and traffic backups as crews made emergency repairs.
The panel, appointed by then-Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari, spent from October to May examining the authority's inspection program and made its report to the agency's board Wednesday. In its report, the peer review panel made no findings of negligence or serious lapses by the authority.
"They've been doing an adequate job. They meet with federal requirements, but like most organizations they can improve their program," said Mary Lou Ralls, a former Texas Department of Transportation engineer who chaired the panel.
Ralls said the experts found that the authority had been making improvements to its inspection program over the past two years. But the panel also concluded that there is room for further upgrades.
Among other things, it urged the authority to increase its oversight of the consulting engineers who carry out the bulk of the inspections it performs on the 254 bridges and two tunnels in its system. It also called for stepped-up training for those who would, in effect, inspect the inspectors.
The panel called for greater "transparency" in the authority's activities, including allowing representatives of the public and the news media to accompany inspectors.
The effectiveness of the authority's inspections of the Bay Bridge have become a subject of contention in recent years, particularly after last summer's crash led to the discovery of the corrosion problem.
During this year's legislative session, state Sen. E.J. Pipkin, an Eastern Shore Republican, introduced a bill requiring an independent inspection of the Bay Bridge. The authority opposed such a move, and the bill eventually failed.
The authority board gave its staff 60 days to come up with a plan to implement the recommendations. The full report can be found at www.marylandtransportation.com/PeerReviewReport.pdf.