A report by the Auditor General of Alberta released last week found that the province's bridge inspection program wasn't up to par. In his Fall Report issued November 1, Auditor General Merwan Saher put the chapter on "Transportation - Managing Structural Safety of Bridges" front and centre, addressing it as the first point in his report.
While the Auditor hastened to say that his office did not find any evidence of unsafe bridges, he said they did find shortfalls in the way that the province's Department of Transportation was overseeing its inspection program.
The Department oversees 4,400 bridge structures, consisting of 1,600 bridges and 2,800 bridge-sized culverts. Level 1 visual and basic inspections are done on all bridges and on culverts with a diameter of 1,500 mm or larger over periods varying from every 21 to 57 months. The province outsources Level 1 inspections to individuals who are required to be certified every three years.
Level 2 inspections involve using specialized measuring equipment and are done on structures known to have structural deficiencies, or which need frequent monitoring due to their age, the traffic they carry, or their particular design. Those inspections are done at four to six year intervals on 600 bridges with concrete decks and about 120 bridges with metal trusses. The Department also does ultrasonic testing of older steel bridges, and sampling from concrete bridge decks.
Following its review, which took place between April 2011 and August this year, the Auditor's office found that while the Transportation Department has a good bridge monitoring system in place, it was not following up systematically enough to ensure that appropriate remedial actions were being taken following an inspection. As the report said, "The regions do not track priority recommendations through to their resolution, such as requesting a level 2 inspection, increasing monitor or repairing the bridge."
The Auditor also found that the Department was not consistently checking to ensure that its bridge inspectors were keeping up with their certifications. And even though spot audits of the inspectors' work was written into the Department's monitoring system as a requirement, the checks had not occurred for two of the previous four years.
The Auditor also recommended that the Department should regularly assess whether contracting out the inspections was cost effective, and it suggested there should be more control over who had access to its information systems for bridges. A report in the Globe and Mail said the problem was that inspectors whose certification had lapsed were allowed to continue carrying out inspections and the Department staff overrode computer safeguards to allow these individuals to enter information in the database.
The Auditor also saw funding problems ahead. The Transportation Department estimates that the cost to replace all its bridge structures is in the region of $6.7 billion, and that over the next 10 years it needs about $900 million. But the province only provides about $25 million annually for this purpose. The Auditor noted: "the Department could have provided better information to the Department of Treasury Board and Finance to allow decision-makers to better understand the risks of different funding levels on safety, service levels and future funding needs."
The same day that the Auditor's report was released, Transportation Minister Ric McIver announced that his department "welcomes" the recommendations and said that the staff had already implemented most of the process improvements the auditor had recommended.
To read the Auditor's report, click here.