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New audit questions bridge safety

ALBANY A scathing new audit, released on Tuesday by NYS Comptroller Tom Dinapoli exposes some major shortfalls in the Department of Transportations railroad bridge monitoring program.  DiNapoli says the DOT doesnt adequately monitor whether railroads comply with bridge inspection and reporting requirements and doesnt even fully carry out its own bridge inspection responsibilities.
 
There are 38 railroads that own or have maintenance responsibility for nearly 3,000 railroad bridges across the state.  Its the DOTs job to make sure those railroads are truly inspecting the bridges and have a safety plan in place but the DiNapolis auditors says the agency is dropping the ball.  A lot of reports are missing, a lot of reports hadn't been filed, a lot of reports didn't have necessary data points in them, says Pete Grannis, the Deputy Comptroller.
 
Most of the larger railroads like Amtrak and CSX submitted inspection records and maintenance plans, albeit late, annually.  But at least four other railroads never actually submitted plans or proof of inspection, instead sending undated memos assuring DOT they were within compliance.  Auditors also found that bridge management plans that were on file with DOT, were an average of a decade old, the railroads really haven't been doing a good job and nobody has been holding their feet to the fire...There are a lot of smaller, boutique railroads that provide scenic tours that cross over bridges and those bridges are important, if something happens on a small railroad or a big railroad, it's going to make front page news that we weren't doing our job, the state wasn't doing its job in making sure the railroads were inspecting their bridges, Grannis says.
 
Railroad bridges are required to be inspected annually, yet 90% of the bridges listed on the states database, do not include the date of the last general inspection, according to the audit.
In the DOTs response to the audit, Phillip Eng, the Executive Deputy Commissioner says, The Federal Railroad Administrations (FRA) Final Rule, adopted on September 13, 2010 established a new, more stringent, bridge safety regulations (49 CFR Part 237), which clearly established that the railroads are ultimately responsible for inspecting their own bridges and puts in place enforcement mechanisms for noncompliance.  Earlier this year, the FRA issued compliance guidance for use in implementing the new bridge safety standards.  NYSDOT is studying whether these regulations preempt state laws and regulations governing the same subject matter.
 
Granns says though, State law requires that the State DOT stay on top of these inspections too and if they want to pass the buck to the feds, they have to go through the legislative process to do it.  He also adds that the DOT is responsible for inspecting 48 railroad bridges annually that are either on state property or they have an agreement to maintain and auditors found that 8 of those inspections were missed between 2010 and 2012.

The DOT issued the following statement in response:

"The Department of Transportations top priority is safety. Despite the assertions made in the Comptrollers report, we have 100% compliance from owners of private railroad bridges that inspections have been performed. That means all of the privately-owned bridges have been inspected and certified for 2013. The Department will continue to work with railroad bridge owners to ensure that they are adhering to Federal Railroad Administration regulations, and that the bridges are inspected and safe to carry their designated loads.
 
"In addition, NYSDOT is on track to complete the annual  inspections of all 48 State owned bridges."