Bureau of Audit
Audit Report on the Department of Transportationís Remediation of Bridge Defects
JUNE 5, 2012
AUDIT REPORT IN BRIEF
Download the Complete Report (pdf 637KB)
The Department of Transportation’s (the Department) Division of Bridges (Division) is required to perform corrective or protective actions for safety and structural defects (i.e., “flags”) on the 782 bridges it maintains.1 2 Flags are usually identified during the course of inspections carried out by Division inspectors or inspectors from the New York State Department of Transportation. According to the New York State Department of Transportation Engineering Instruction EI10-016 (Inspection Flagging Procedure for Bridges), there are three classifications for these flags: red, yellow, or safety. A red flag is “a structural flag that is used to report the failure or potential failure of a primary structural component.” A yellow flag is “a structural flag that is used to report a potentially hazardous structural condition which, if left unattended could become a clear and present danger before the next scheduled biennial inspection.” A safety flag is “used to report a condition presenting a clear and present danger to vehicular or pedestrian traffic, but poses no danger of structural failure or collapse.” Red and safety flags may also be designated for prompt interim action, which means that a condition must be addressed within 24 hours of notification to the Division’s Flag Engineering unit.3 Red flags are to be remediated within six weeks after notification, although action may be deferred if appropriate certifications are made by a professional engineer. Yellow flags and safety flags do not have a specific timeframe for remediation according to the Engineering Instruction.
According to the Department’s Bridges and Tunnels 2010 Annual Condition Report, there were 973 flag conditions routed (i.e., sent to the Department’s staff of trades-workers, requirement contractors, or capital project staff to undertake repairs, or sent to inspection for monitoring) in 2009, and 1,390 flag conditions routed in 2010. Information about flag conditions is recorded in the Department’s Bridge Inventory Management System (BIMS) database. Our analysis of data extracted from BIMS provided to us by Department officials found that there were five red flags with prompt interim action conditions, 107 safety flags with prompt interim action conditions (a total of 112 flags with prompt interim action conditions), and 117 red flags without prompt interim action conditions routed in 2009 and 2010. The audit consisted of a review of all of these 229 flags.
Audit Findings and Conclusions
The Department appropriately handled all but one of the 112 prompt interim action conditions, but has not remediated 71 of the 122 red flags (58 percent) in a timely manner.4 This problem was brought about in part because of delays in routing flags to the appropriate staff who actually carried out the remedial work or deferring remediation work multiple times. In addition, while there are no designated timeframes for remediating yellow and safety flags, five of the red flags we examined were initially identified as yellow flags that deteriorated over time to the point where the conditions had to be flagged as red. Carrying out remedial work within required and reasonable timeframes for bridge conditions that have been identified as deficient is critical for ensuring that public safety is not jeopardized.
Additionally, the Department has not fully complied with required State Transportation Department procedures for the reporting of flag remediation. Moreover, the Department lacks sufficient written procedures of its own. Finally, problems with the Department’s BIMS database impede the Department’s ability to effectively monitor and report on the condition and status of flag repairs.
This report makes a total of 17 recommendations, including that the Department:
- Remediate red flag conditions in a timely manner—by either the end of the six-week period as specified in the State Department of Transportation Engineering Instruction EI10-016 or the end of the deferral timeframe as certified by the Department.
- Assess and subsequently prepare guidelines for routing flag conditions to the appropriate workforce within a reasonable time period.
- Limit the practice of routinely deferring the remediation of red flag conditions and reconsider the practice of deferring red flag remediation more than once.
- Provide written justification in those cases where the remediation of a red flag must be deferred.
- Enhance coordination between flag engineering staff and the workforce that will carry out the remediation work.
- Carry out the remediation of yellow and safety flags in a reasonable timeframe.
- Develop a system for tracking and monitoring correspondence and certifications to the State Transportation Department and submit all required certifications and correspondence within required timeframes.
- Accurately record in BIMS the dates that show when the Department was notified about flag conditions and remediated them. Additionally, update BIMS to allow for the recording of remediation dates for prompt interim action conditions.
In its response, the Department stated, “We disagree with the Report's recommendations related to flag remediation timeframes and deferral periods. Several of these recommendations seem to eliminate engineering judgment for the actions taken in response to flags and suggest adopting rigid remediation procedures.”
The Department’s response indicates that it has clearly misunderstood the salient facts, conclusions, and recommendations of our audit:
- We did not and do not recommend eliminating engineering judgment in favor of rigid remediation procedures.
- Red flags are “used to report the failure or potential failure of a primary structural component.” Therefore, these types of flags should be remediated timely, which was the focus of our audit.
- We accepted as being timely, remediations that occurred within either six weeks of notification, as required by the Engineering Instruction, or by the end of the first deferral period, as specified in the Department’s certifications to the State.
- 38 of the 71 red flags (54 percent) that were cited as not being timely remediated, were not completed within this timeframe and were not certified as being safe beyond this timeframe. The 38 flags are 31 percent of the 122 red flags routed during calendar years 2009 and 2010.
- The other 33 of the 71 red flags (46 percent) that were cited as not being timely remediated were not completed within this timeframe but there were additional deferral letters certifying safety beyond this timeframe in the files. However, there were cases where the Department’s engineering safety certifications lapsed before the next deferral letter certifying safety was sent to the State. The 33 flags are 27 percent of the 122 red flags routed during calendar years 2009 and 2010.
- As the State’s Engineering Instruction does not clarify procedures pertaining to deferrals, the Department should establish its own policies and procedures to cover these matters and provide for discretionary action.
- Additionally, the 71 red flags cited for late remediation were routed for repair—not for monitoring. If the Department intends that a flag condition be monitored, it should be clearly routed for monitoring, in contrast to routing the flags for repair. Furthermore, the response to the State should reflect the monitoring status. We did not cite flags routed for monitoring as deficient.
The Department response continues, “Simply stated, State procedures set a ‘default’ time frame for addressing PIA and red flags — 24 hours and six weeks, respectively. However, the procedures allow the responsible engineer to set different timeframes, based on the particular condition, if the engineer certifies that it is safe to do so. Several options for assuring safety, other than full repair, are contained in the procedures.” The Department further alleged that the “auditors added their own arbitrary standard in which PIA and red flags may be deferred only once (Footnote 4 of the Report) and then measured NYCDOT's performance against this self-created standard.”
Contrary to the Department’s belief, our recommendations are based on time standards that are stipulated in the New York State Department of Transportation Engineering Instruction EI10-016, which “establishes requirements for certifying that appropriate measures are taken within a specified timeframe” for addressing bridge deficiencies. These requirements include addressing the “observed condition within 24 hours” for prompt interim action conditions and, in the case of red flags, “Generally, all actions taken shall be completed within six weeks from the date of Written Notification . . .” We recognized the Department’s prerogative to exercise engineering judgment by considering a remediation to be timely if completed by the end of the deferral period certified by the Department. In other words, we accepted that deferring action to a later timeframe was valid.
The Department also responded that, “State procedures and good practice mandate that the prioritization of flag repairs be based on safety, and not solely on a clock. Prioritization needs to be flexible since conditions can frequently change. The procedures in the State and throughout the country allow for methods of addressing flags other than repair” such as “posting a bridge for specific load restrictions” or monitoring the structure.
We agree that flags may be addressed by methods other than repair. Accordingly, our audit did not cite as deficiencies sampled flags that were routed for monitoring or had load restrictions posted. The flags cited as late in the audit report, however, were all routed to either the Department’s in-house trades-workers, requirement contractors, or future capital contracts; in these cases, none of the Department’s responses to the State indicated that the flags were routed for monitoring nor was there any documentation in the Department’s flag files that showed that monitoring had been performed.
The Department has clearly misunderstood our recommendations regarding the deferral of flag remediations. In contrast to the Department’s assertion that “the Report recommends that once the repair is deferred in order to implement the monitoring, it should not be further deferred regardless of the results of that monitoring,” we recommended that if lengthy timeframes are necessary, the Department should consider routing flags to inspection under a defined condition monitoring program. It should be noted that the 71 red flags cited for late remediation were routed for repair—not to inspection for monitoring.
Furthermore, in contrast to the Department’s assertion that “Rigid adherence to any schedule, regardless of how reasonable it was when it was created, ignores the fact that priorities are required to be reevaluated and changed frequently,” we stated that for those red flag conditions that are deferred beyond six weeks, the Department should ensure that the deferral timeframe for remediating a red flag condition is reasonable and accurate.
For the 33 cases that were deferred multiple times, we note that there was no documentation to justify why the remediation did not occur in the original timeframes or to substantiate a change in Departmental priorities. Furthermore, as the Engineering Instruction does not address the issue of multiple deferrals, it is important that the Department develop written procedures that cover deferrals and documenting their need.
Finally, the audit report simply never recommended that “NYCDOT change repair priorities to comply blindly with a schedule, without consideration of safety or cost.” The State’s Engineering Instruction defines a red flag as “a structural flag that is used to report the failure or potential failure of a primary structural component.” Therefore, it is reasonable that these defects be remediated timely. However, the report did not state that the Department’s failure to remediate red flag conditions timely meant that bridge safety was endangered.
Of the 122 red flags that were routed during calendar years 2009 and 2010, 38 red flags (i.e., 31 percent) were not completed within six weeks or by the end of the deferral period certified by the Department in its response. We note that after the expiration of this timeframe the files lacked any further deferral letters and certifications by the Department’s engineers that the bridges associated with the red flags were safe to use. An additional 33 (27 percent) of the 122 routed red flags were deferred multiple times. For these, Department engineers certified that the bridges were safe to use. However, we noted some cases out of the 33 in which the deferral letters lapsed prior to new deferral letters being issued, thereby leaving interim periods that were not covered by an engineer’s safety certification.
The Department agreed with eight recommendations, disagreed with six recommendations, and contended that three recommendations were already implemented.
1 The Division also maintains five tunnels, resulting in a total of 787 structures.
2 Corrective or protective actions may include closing or demolishing the bridge, implementing a monitoring program, or repairing the defect. The use of the term “remediate” in this audit report may refer to any of these actions.
3 Remediation for flags that are designated for prompt interim action (PIA) is typically done as a temporary repair or stabilization pending a permanent correction at a later date.
4 We considered a flag remediation to be late if the flag condition was not addressed by the later of the end of the six-week period stated in the Engineering Instruction or the deferral timeframe as certified by the Department.