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In a program on NPR that I was listening to, there was a bit about a bridge that from the description sounded to a layman as unsound and is still in use. The program described it as an old wooden railway (and I'm aware that has its own set of challenges) bridge with rotting timbers.

In the United Sates, if a member of the public sees a bridge (railway, tramway, car/truck, foot, bike, etc...) that is of questionable soundness, what is the process for him or her to determine who us responsible for it, and if they (the responsible parties) should look at it and have it evaluated?

Is there a particular agency that is responsible for regulating bridges and ascertaining their safety?

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    $\begingroup$ @Air The particular is A Hard Look At The Risks Of Transporting Oil On Rail Tanker Cars. The full transcript is there and the bridge is described at the passage starting "Well, I went down to Tuscaloosa". I would point out that its not about this bridge but rather the question of how a non-engineer should go through the process of reporting a concern and to whom should it go for the general case. $\endgroup$ – user348 Feb 26 '15 at 16:29
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    $\begingroup$ (I'm not from the US) on other engineering fora, I get the vibe that infrastructuer, bridges mostly, in the US is often way behind in maintenance, while the (as of now) top answers assume proper procedures with maintenance etc are followed. I don't know if this affects your question, but it could. $\endgroup$ – mart Feb 26 '15 at 20:50
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    $\begingroup$ Often, rail crossings have a phone number of the rail company attached. My memory may be faulty, but I think Norfolk-Southern and Amtrak do this in the mid-Atlantic US. It is certainly the case for Network Rail in the Great Britain (even if the sign mentions the predecessor Railtrack.) This will reach a signal box 24 hours a day: so a driver of a bus or truck that struck the bridge can report the issue. The signaller can stop the trains and dispatch a qualified engineer to inspect the bridge. $\endgroup$ – dcorking Feb 27 '15 at 9:29
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I can understand your concern. This is going to be difficult for two reasons:

  1. Finding out the agency that is responsible for the maintenance may be next to impossible for a layperson. Note that I said "maintenance", because this might be a different entity than the owner due to agreements.
  2. Due to the number of complaints that the public agencies receive, it is very likely that your comment will get ignored. This often has nothing to do with whether or not your concern has merit.

Public vs. Private

Public agencies will be the easiest to contact. In a city, calling the city emergency or non-emergency number will at least let you talk to someone who could forward your concern on to the appropriate agency. What is done after that is uncertain unless there is an active emergency situation, e.g. bridge span missing. In that case, the standard emergency procedures will be in effect.

A simple concern will likely get ignored. At the best a local worker will be dispatched in the next day or so to do a drive-by inspection.

Private agencies might not have an easy method for interfacing with the public. Depending on the company, the headquarters might not be located in the same state as you. I am specifically thinking about Railroads in this instance. To find a contact number, it might involve sitting down and searching a website.

Once again, active emergencies will be handled by the local emergency (911) management. Simple concerns will likely be ignored.

Inspections

Every agency (private or public) that I can think of has inspection requirements. These regulate the frequency and extent of inspections. For many typical bridges, an inspection is required every year. These are usually routine inspections which mean that at a minimum every area is visually inspected. Certain structure of concern might have more frequent requirements or more in depth inspections. These inspections might include actually measuring the thickness of steel plates or sounding for concrete spalls.

Is it really an unsafe structure?

Unless the person reporting the concern has a background that would allow them to know what is and is not unsafe, it is likely that there isn't an issue. A lot of concerns are based on the visual condition of a structure. This can be very misleading.

Easily visible conditions:

  • flaking paint
  • rust
  • chipped concrete
  • rotted timber

Whether or not these conditions affect the safety of the structure depend on the exact location within the structure and their extent. Most structures are designed with factors of safety that mean that almost any local issue will not cause the entire structure to be unsafe.

Also, if the condition has already been reported in an inspection, steps may have already been taken to ensure that the structure isn't loaded in a way to make it unsafe. For roadway bridges, this may mean posting vehicle load limits. For railway bridges, it may mean having trains go slower while crossing the bridge.

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    $\begingroup$ Even more alarming to the layperson is a preponderance of crack-stop holes, if clearly visible. "Swiss cheese" comes to mind, though the holes serve a very important purpose and the structure may have decades of useful service life remaining. $\endgroup$ – Air Feb 26 '15 at 16:28
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    $\begingroup$ @Air most people would be shocked at the number of 100+ year old bridges (railroad mostly) that are repaired and not replaced. $\endgroup$ – hazzey Feb 26 '15 at 16:32
  • $\begingroup$ There's also the problem with local ordinance sometimes being considerably lax in the US - since some areas are quite far removed from any urban regulations, and don't always enforce federal ones as strictly as they should. $\endgroup$ – Zibbobz Feb 26 '15 at 20:01
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Here in the US, I would contact the state department that manages roadways. Those are referred to as the "highway department", "department of public works", and various other names. Here in Massachusetts it's the Department of Transportation, often known as "Mass DOT".

Nowadays state governments have web sites, so it should not be hard to at least find a general phone number for the department. You have to be prepared to get bounced around to different people, but eventually, if you preservere, you should be able to talk to someone that has oversight responsibility for the structure in question but is low enough down to actually know what you mean.

However, most likely what you think is a problem isn't. Public infrastructure is reviewed and inspected on a schedule in most cases. This schedule is designed so that major changes, like corrosion, won't happen fast enough between inspections to cause a problem.

Sudden catastrophic things do happen, and there is always the unlikely remote chance that you are the one person that happened to notice, but probably not. Most likely you will just be wasting their time, and may also be treated like that unless and until you can provide enough evidence of a real problem.

If you really think a piece of public infrastructure has a problem, take a picture of it. That will help the person you are reporting the problem to evaluate quickly whether it's just something that looks bad to a layman or really is a problem they weren't already aware of.

Another thing you might do is show the picture to someone you know with the appropriate engineering background. If they think it still could be a real problem, then go ahead and report it. If not, then you haven't wasted the public servants' time, which ultimately you are paying for.

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    $\begingroup$ Good advice. The layperson is probably more likely to be injured by something they have no way of reasonably anticipating than by any visible flaw; after all, a great number of qualified engineers are using those bridges/tunnels/roadways on a daily basis! $\endgroup$ – Air Feb 26 '15 at 16:32
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    $\begingroup$ Will a State DOT log or follow up a report of a private structure (such as a rail bridge over the road) that appears to be endangering a public roadway? $\endgroup$ – dcorking Feb 27 '15 at 9:17
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    $\begingroup$ @dcorking: I would guess so, if it interacts with a public right of way. The private entity owning a bridge across a public road most likely has a bunch of rules they have to follow. However, I don't know any of this specifically. You could always ask them. $\endgroup$ – Olin Lathrop Feb 27 '15 at 14:13
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In addition to the other answers, I would advise you to not underestimate the utility of going to one of your elected representatives. Unless you live in Nebraska (which has a unicameral state legislature), you have two state representatives, a US House representative, and two US Senators that you are a constituent of.

While part of their job may yelling at other elected officials, spewing rhetoric, and maintaining gridlock (bitterness? what bitterness?), helping constituents with problems is also a big part of their job, and it's one they'll probably be glad to do, because it's a good way for them to improve their public image and, less cynically, to actually help people. They obviously won't be able to go out and inspect the infrastructure themselves, but they should be able to help get you to the right part of the state or federal government for the issue that you've noticed, and to help ensure that you get a suitable answer, whether that be a new inspection, confirmation that an inspection was recently done, or learning that repairs may already be planned or in an approval process.

The US House of Representatives has a website that allows you to determine who your representative is, and I wouldn't be surprised if your state legislatures have similar tools. I would guess that the state governments are the ones responsible for most of the infrastructure you'll see, so I would advise starting with your state representatives, as their smaller constituency will also result in your voice being more visible. And don't be afraid to reach out to more than one person, in more than one way. Call, email, send letters; this is the point of democracy and not enough people take advantage of it.

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  • $\begingroup$ It sounds theoretical - is this a proven, practical advice? $\endgroup$ – Volker Siegel Feb 27 '15 at 5:17
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In the United States, you can often use nationalbridges.com and uglybridges.com to ascertain the current status of a bridge, along with some basic information about the owning agency/maintenance agency. Ordinary road/highway bridges are usually inspected on a biennial basis, and given a sufficiency rating out of 100. If a bridge is identified as having structural problems it will be listed as "structurally deficient". Those with substandard geometry, safety railing, or insufficient vehicle capacity will be listed as "functionally obsolete".

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