Expecting The Uninspected

Our View: Panels' Safety Findings Set A New Standard For Bridges, Tunnels

June 29, 2009

Some of Maryland's most important, and vulnerable, transportation choke points are the toll bridges and tunnels run by the Maryland Transportation Authority. From the Bay Bridge to the Fort McHenry Tunnel, these are heavily traveled links in the transportation grid, and should any of them fail, the consequences would be disastrous.

That's why last week's recommendations by an independent panel of engineering experts to significantly upgrade the authority's bridge and tunnel inspection program - and the agency's apparent willingness to do so - are clearly a step in the right direction.

While the panel found the authority's existing inspection program meets federal standards, that's not good enough to restore public confidence after last year's Bay Bridge tractor-trailer crash. It was only during an investigation of that Aug. 10 fatal accident that workers discovered that the bridge's traffic barriers were failing, the product of unseen corrosion to connecting bolts.

Authority Executive Secretary Ronald L. Freeland has already pledged to hire additional inspectors and to set new policy guidelines by the fall. The agency's budget for inspections has been increased five-fold, from less than $2 million two years ago to an expected $11.8 million this year.

That additional spending should ensure that bridges and tunnels are inspected from arm's length (rather than from a distance) and that multiple firms are hired to perform the task each year so that the same people are not always inspecting the same property.

Still, it's not entirely clear that even with these more stringent standards the deficient Bay Bridge bolts would have been detected by inspectors. Among the panel's recommendations is an increased use of advanced technologies such as ground-penetrating radar and ultrasonic testing when specific concerns are raised by inspectors.

But what inspectors can't see is unlikely to become a concern. As Eastern Shore state Sen. E.J. Pipkin, a frequent critic of the agency, has recommended, it would be better for the authority to use such technologies as a regular part of the inspection process for certain potentially vulnerable components.

This much is certain: The authority needs to strive not merely to meet federal safety standards but to have one of the nation's top inspection programs. Too much rides on the continued safe operations of these bridges and tunnels to justify anything less.

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