Tuesday, August 07, 2007

TxDOT's terror threat

Texans kept in the dark about bridge safety

TxDOT cites terrorism concerns as reason to keep information secret

Aug. 7, 2007

Houston Chronicle Austin Bureau
Copyright 2007

AUSTIN — Amid concerns about government secrecy and Texas bridge safety, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst asked state transportation officials Tuesday to give him the locations of spans needing repairs, and an idea of when they'll be fixed.

It remains questionable, however, whether the Texas Department of Transportation will produce the information for public consumption.

Dewhurst cited the collapse last week of an Interstate 35 bridge in Minneapolis and gave agency officials until Aug. 17 to provide the number and locations of all structurally deficient bridges, the status of maintenance contracts and anticipated dates for repair.

"I read with relief your statement that 'all of the bridges on Texas' public roads are safe,' but the Minnesota highway department, I assume, thought that was true for their state, too," Dewhurst wrote in his letter to Texas Department of Transportation Chairman Ric Williamson.

Meanwhile, a top-ranking state senator said at a public hearing Tuesday that he'd been initially denied information from Williamson's department.

On Monday, state Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, requested a list of North Texas bridges in poor condition and which ones would take priority for repairs.

"If the chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee can't get that, who can get it?" Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, asked as he chaired a public meeting of the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee in Irving.

Amadeo Saenz, TxDOT's assistant executive director for engineering operations, said Carona could obtain the information only if he signed a confidentiality agreement.

Federal and state laws

Of chief concern to transportation officials, according to records of a Monday e-mail exchange between a Carona aide and TxDOT, is the need for the public to be kept in the dark about specifics of bridge safety.

TxDOT's government relations staffer Caroline Love cited a state law saying government records are confidential if "they identify the technical details of particular vulnerabilities of critical infrastructure to an act of terrorism."

Also, she wrote that a federal law barring bridge inspection reports from use in court litigation strictly limits release of such information by the state to the public.

"TxDOT is not releasing specific bridge information or reports for requests from the general public," she wrote before she cited an "option" for legislators.

"If a legislator requests such information in writing AND indicates the information is for legislative purposes, information may be provided," Love wrote.

She added, "there must be an agreement or understanding that the requested information may not be shared further or with the public."

TxDOT spokesman Chris Lippincott said officials will provide Dewhurst with "the information as best we can, as quickly as we can."

Meanwhile, he said the public need not fear.

"If a bridge is not safe, we will close it," he said.

San Antonio Express-News reporter Patrick Driscoll contributed to this report.

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