After a tugboat and its four heavy barges slammed into the Queen Isabella Causeway nearly six years ago, killing eight motorists, lawyer Michael Slack wondered if past boat accidents had weakened Texas' longest bridge. The Texas Department of Transportation said he wasn't entitled to an answer.
"There are sometimes very frustrating limits imposed on safety information, and I think it should be available," said Slack, a lawyer hired by the city of South Padre Island and local businesses after the tugboat accident cut off the island from the mainland.
Federal officials provide some facts about the reliability of bridges across the United States. The public can find out the latest inspection date of a bridge, its location, when it was built and whether it is structurally sound.
But when it comes to finding out more details about Texas' 50,000 bridges, the public can't read actual inspection documents that might shed light on dangerous structures. Over the years, state officials have turned down hundreds of requests for inspection documents on bridges, railroad crossings and highways. Officials say a federal law prohibits them from releasing those documents.
"It's a condition for federal funding," said Sharon Alexander, a lawyer for the Transportation Department who has responded to requests by the public for copies of inspection papers. The law says inspection records for transportation projects that receive federal funding cannot be used as evidence in court.
Alexander said "there's a great debate" among transportation officials across the nation about whether the law also applies to members of the public who aren't part of a lawsuit. In Texas, the Transportation Department has decided to withhold the records from everyone — and the Texas attorney general agrees.
In past open-records decisions, the attorney general's office said the intention of the federal law is to "facilitate candor" of inspectors by keeping their reports private. That rationale has frustrated people like Slack. "Those inspections are done for the public interest," Slack said. "You would expect that stuff would be more forthcoming."
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