Illinois restricts I-80 bridge inspection records

Illinois restricts I-80 bridge inspection records

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I-80 Bridge Work
Construction on and around the Interstate 80 bridge over the Mississippi River has caused traffic backups on both sides of the river throughout the summer.

Separate decisions by the transportation departments in Iowa and Illinois a week ago mean that inspection reports for only one of the Quad-Cities' four state-managed bridges is open to public review.

The Illinois Department of Transportation denied access to the inspection report for the Interstate 80 bridge, citing security concerns.

Iowa's transportation department, citing Illinois' decision, declined to release its copy of the report, too.

The Quad-City Times sought access to the documents in the wake of major restrictions put in place on the I-80 bridge last month.

Illinois limited traffic on the bridge to one lane after state workers found a series of cracks on the span.

The state says the bridge is safe, but its condition has deteriorated to the point that more frequent inspections have been ordered.

Illinois rejected the Times' request a little more than a week ago. The DOT cited security reasons.

In 2007, the state's terrorism task force asked the DOT that critical information about bridges be withheld. "Illinois DOT decided the best way to comply with that request was to make the bridge inspection reports confidential documents," said Paris Ervin, a department spokesperson.

Iowa, which co-owns the bridge with Illinois, also refused to release its copy of the report, even though it considers bridge inspection records to be public records, albeit with some restrictions.

Dena Gray-Fisher, a spokesperson for the Iowa DOT, said in a letter to the Times that since Illinois deemed the documents confidential, it was declining the newspaper's request, too.

The two states own the bi-state bridges jointly and share the inspection reports. But because Illinois is the lead agency on the I-80 bridge, it is in charge of oversight of the span, including the conduct of inspections.

It has the same role with respect to the I-280 and Centennial bridges. The Iowa DOT is the lead agency on the I-74 bridge only.

Iowa granted a copy last week of the I-74 report, but with some redactions for security reasons.

Bridge collapse a catalyst

Journalists have been increasingly seeking access to bridge inspection documents since the collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge in Minnesota on Aug. 1, 2007.

Thirteen people were killed and 145 were injured.

When Minnesota's Department of Transportation got a flood of inquiries for reports, it decided to put the inspection documents for nearly all its bridges online.

There is an exclusion for fewer than 20 bridges that would cause security concerns if something were to happen to them, said Kevin Gutknecht, a spokesman for the Minnesota DOT.

Otherwise, he said the information is public.

"The bridges are public infrastructure. The public wants to know about the bridges and what the inspections are like," he said. "They ought to be able to see the inspection reports."

The Illinois DOT, like other states, submits part of its inspection data to the federal government. And a spokesperson said it notifies the public when there are problems with bridges.

"Illinois DOT's No. 1 priority is public safety," Ervin said.

Court case cited

In refusing the Times' request for the I-80 report, the Iowa DOT cited a

1996 case in which it said the state Supreme Court determined the custodian of a record can't release it if it would undermine another agency with

custody of the record that has already ruled it to be confidential.

"It is beyond the Iowa DOT's authority to interfere or contradict the decision made by Illinois and release precisely the same record that Illinois has declined to release for security reasons," Gray-Fisher said in the letter.

A lawyer in the 1996 case, however, said the state DOT is stretching the court's ruling.

"It really is a shame that the Iowa DOT and its lawyers are using an older 6-to-3 decision that relates only to legislative records to keep safety information secret, rather than looking for ways under the open records act to inform the Quad-Cities public fully," said Michael Giudicessi of Des Moines, who specializes in communications and First Amendment law and has represented many news organizations in Iowa, including the Times.

Iowa law presumes records in the government's possession to be open, but does allow some exceptions.

Giudicessi represented the Des Moines Register and Iowa Freedom of Information Council in the case, which was an attempt to gain access to state Senate phone records that were being held by the Senate and by the Department of General Services, an executive branch agency.

The court ruled against the newspaper and the council, saying the state Senate was within its constitutional rights to keep the records secret, and that neither the judiciary nor the executive branch had the right to interfere.

Iowa will release bridge inspection reports for which it is the lead agency, such as for I-74, but only in part.

The department issued a policy in December 2007 that lists a number of items that won't be disclosed in the inspection reports.

Those items include information that would disclose which bridges are considered "critical assets," data that would show how to access a bridge's structural components and information identifying "facture critical" bridge members. Those are members whose failure would be expected to cause the collapse of all or part of a bridge.

Gray-Fisher said the idea is to keep confidential those items that would identify a bridge's areas of vulnerability.

She also said in her letter to the Times that data contained in the Structure Inventory and Appraisal Sheet is available at the Federal Highway Administration, including for the I-80 bridge.

The report, however, only summarizes findings of a bridge inspection. It does not contain the greater level of detail that's in the inspection reports themselves.

The Illinois DOT says it is working to make similar data available on its Web site and hopes to have it ready in August.

ON THE WEB: To access inspection reports of bridges in Minnesota, go to http://www.dot.state.mn.us/i35wbridge/statewide_inspections/inspections.html

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