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Hearing of the Subcommittee on Highways and Transit of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure - "Oversight of the Highway Bridge Program and the National Bridge Inspection Program"


Location: Washington, DC

I want to thank Chairman DeFazio and Ranking Member Duncan for holding this hearing today. As you know, I am passionate about improving the condition of our Nation's bridges, and, while we have seen some improvement in recent years, we still have much to accomplish.

After the September 2007 collapse of the I-35W highway bridge in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the Inspector General (IG), at the request of the Secretary of Transportation, conducted two evaluations of the Federal Highway Administration's (FHWA) management of bridge safety and oversight of the Federal Highway Bridge Program (HBP).

Those evaluations, as well as a 2006 IG audit, collectively document deficiencies related to States' and FHWA's management and oversight of various aspects of the HBP. Furthermore, in 2008, a Government Accountability Office (GAO) investigation of the HBP concluded that the program requires clearer goals and performance measures.

The purpose of today's hearing is to examine the issues raised by the IG and GAO reports, and to discuss the steps that can be taken to reinvigorate FHWA's oversight of the Federal bridge program and State bridge inspections.
Of the 603,245 bridges in the National Bridge Inventory (NBI), 149,647 bridges (24.8 percent)----nearly one in four----are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.

The National Highway System, which carries approximately 71 percent of average daily bridge traffic in the United States, currently has 5,977 structurally deficient bridges and 117,302 functionally obsolete bridges.
From 1998 through 2007 the Federal-aid highway program provided over $45 billion in HBP funding. Yet, over that ten year period the proportion of the Nation's total bridge deck area that was deficient declined only slightly, from 32.6 percent to 30.1 percent.

And we continue to face a tremendous and growing bridge backlog: according to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), more than $98 billion could be invested immediately in a cost-beneficial way to replace or otherwise address existing bridge deficiencies.

With over one-half of our bridges built before 1964, it is increasingly important that we have reliable information on the safety of these structures. It is imperative that we accurately identify structural flaws and recognize when the appropriate time comes to load--limit, repair, or reconstruct a bridge.

In 2007, the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure and the Subcommittee on Highways and Transit conducted in-depth hearings into the Highway Bridge Program and the National Bridge Inspection Program (NBIP).
Based on these hearings, in July 2008 the House passed H.R. 3999, the "National Highway Bridge Reconstruction and Inspection Act of 2008", which included a variety of provisions to strengthen the NBIP and Federal oversight over bridge inspections.

The bill passed the House by a vote of 367 to 55. Unfortunately, the Senate did not follow our lead, and the bill was never enacted into law.

Since 2006 the IG has conducted three separate evaluations of FHWA's oversight of the HBP and NBIP. Based on the results of those investigations, it is clear that FHWA and the individual States can do much more to better safeguard and improve our Nation's bridges.

In 2006 the IG reported on a number of deficiencies in States' load-rating of bridges and failure to post bridge weight limit signs. According to the IG:

* States frequently made errors in calculating bridge load ratings, and one in ten structurally deficient bridges on the National Highway System were incorrectly load-rated;

* More than 40 percent of State-level load ratings posted on NHS bridges did not match the information the State submitted to the NBI; and

* Nearly eight percent of structurally deficient bridges in the NHS were required to have maximum safe weight signs posted on them, but were not posted, allowing overweight vehicles to cross them.

These disturbing inconsistencies must be corrected.

In 2009, the IG issued a follow-up report on FHWA progress in response to the 2006 audit. In this report the IG noted FHWA's implementation of corrective actions to improve the consistency and accuracy of its evaluations of state compliance with the NBIS. However, the IG also reported that FHWA divisional engineers often failed to utilize the corrective measures.

Furthermore, according to the IG, FHWA divisional offices also missed opportunities to identify and remediate significant bridge safety risks.
In 2010, the IG issued a report on FHWA oversight of the HBP and the NBIP. This report found that FHWA was unable to track the effectiveness of HBP funding in actually mitigating bridge deficiencies.

The IG also identified serious anomalies and inconsistencies in FHWA's assessment of overall state compliance with the NBIP. In one instance, a State failed to close 96 bridges as required by the NBIS, yet the FHWA divisional engineer nonetheless reported the State to be in compliance. In two other instances, States failed to properly post required weigh limitations for, respectively, 200 and 500 bridges. Yet, again the respective FHWA divisional engineers nonetheless reported the States to be in compliance with the NBIS.

This is unacceptable. Bridges, and bridge sufficiency, are critical to ensuring the safety of the traveling public. The IG reports expose serious deficiencies in FHWA's oversight of State bridge programs, and demonstrate that lack of serious oversight and accountability in the current highway program.

On June 24, 2009, this Subcommittee approved the Surface Transportation Authorization Act of 2009 -- a six-year bill to transform the Federal surface transportation program.

That bill includes a variety of provisions to strengthen the NBIS and Federal oversight over bridge inspections -- including many provisions taken from the National Highway Bridge Reconstruction and Inspection Act of 2008.

These bridge-related provisions are among the many reasons that Congress must delay no longer in passing a comprehensive surface transportation authorization bill. However, even in the absence of an authorization bill, the issues raised by the Inspector General and GAO remain important, and deserve our full attention.

I look forward to hearing the witnesses' testimony today.

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