RIDOT About Bridge Inspections: Psych! You Need a Data Key
The featured image is by RIDOT of a broken steel rod on the Washington Bridge Westbound, one of the critically failed components that caused the sudden closure of Interstate 195 west on December 11.
How these components went critical between July, its most recent inspection (link to report) until December 8, when they were purportedly discovered almost by accident by a “young engineer” remains an important open question. Had the components, in fact, gone bad long before and RIDOT had failed to catch it?
Broadening this out. How do we know whether any of the dozens of bridges in “Poor” condition that WPRI Target 12’s Eli Sherman identified from federal data as not having been inspected since 2017 or 2018 do not harbor similar dangerously compromised components?
Well, it turns out we may not know, though we had initially been told otherwise in the immediate aftermath of the report. WPRO’s Tara Granahan brought up WPRI’s disturbing report on her December 22 show. RIDOT Director Peter Alviti called in to her show. He stated categorically,
The data that Eli Sherman put on the Channel 12 website is completely wrong and I’m calling for them to remove it from their website because it’s so misleading and so incorrect and so outdated that the representations they are making is completely false.
He went on to call on WPRI to retract their report. He stated that all “deficient bridges” have been inspected at least annually and some more frequently, stating, “The inspection dates are all wrong on their website”.
Whew, that’s good. Maybe it’s just a paperwork issue between the state and the feds and these bridges have been inspected after all. WPRI Target 12 diligently followed up with RIDOT to get the details. They updated their story with the response:
… Alviti spokesperson Lisbeth Pettengill initially refused to release the state’s own dataset with [bridge] inspection dates, saying the information had to be obtained through a formal R.I. Access to Public Records Act request.
Pettengill subsequently reversed course and provided a spreadsheet with encrypted inspection dates, but warned that interpreting it correctly required a “data key” — a wonky term meaning a code that essentially allows recipients to decrypt data that’s otherwise unreadable.
“The data key must be applied correctly,” Pettengill explained in an email.
The state has not provided the key. [Emphasis added.]
So RIDOT’s response to a legitimate question from a reputable news organization about a vital issue of public safety that has suddenly been very much in the news is essentially:
Here’s the information. PSYCH! You can’t have it!
Really? That … does not seem either well-advised or serious.
Pettingill identified to WPRI Target 12 two bridges on their list whose condition had changed due to repairs or replacement. But what about all of the other bridges?
What are we to conclude from RIDOT’s deliberate withholding of information that the press and the public are obviously entitled to? Is RIDOT playing possum because they dropped the ball and have not inspected all of those other bridges? Or have they actually inspected these bridges and are holding back the results of those inspections, either out of pettiness or, more ominously, because of the condition of those bridges?
See what happens when you wrongly withhold important information? People are left to fill in the blanks and think the worst.
People are also left to question the taxpayer funds received by the agency, especially one whose one whose public mission is as lavishly funded as RIDOT’s; here and here. We start to wonder if, perhaps, some of that funding would be put to better use elsewhere; either by nursing homes in Rhode Island, many of which are on a precipice, or even
This latest development in Rhode Island’s bridge saga involves more than accountability, important as that is. It’s a simple yet vital question:
Does RIDOT know whether it is safe for vehicles to traverse those bridges identified by WPRI?
I sincerely hope that RIDOT will soon or has already changed course on this response.
An unserious non-answer is not going to shut down a serious question about public safety. On the contrary; it only hypes it.