VTrans told to bridge its inspections communications gap

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MONTPELIER — If Vermont municipalities seem slow to repair their bridges, a report by the Office of the Vermont State Auditor says it might be a failure to communicate on the part of the agency responsible for inspecting them.

Local governments might attend to bridge repairs faster, the state auditor's report suggests, if the Vermont Agency of Transportation were to improve how it shares the information in its inspection reports.

"The decision as to whether to act on a deficiency rests with the municipalities," the report says. "Nevertheless, improvements in VTrans communication of deficiencies could encourage municipalities to be more proactive."

The report is based on an audit of 53 bridges, in 20 municipalities, that VTrans had inspected in 2014 and 2015.

Of the 53 bridges, 52 had been identified by VTrans as having deficiencies. And of those 52, the auditors found, municipal owners had addressed or made plans to address the problems of only 17.

In some cases, municipalities failed to take action because of funding concerns, the report said. Cities and towns are responsible for the maintenance and repair of the bridges within their limits.

But some municipalities said they hadn't even known their bridges had been inspected. In 2014, VTrans stopped mailing its bridge inspection reports to municipalities and instead only posted them online.

"Although VTrans communicated the change to the municipalities, some were unaware that the reports were only available online," State Auditor Douglas Hoffer wrote in an introduction to the report.

Officials in 14 of the 20 municipalities said that if VTrans included more detailed information about bridge deficiencies, including their severity, they might have been more likely to respond to the reports.

"For example, officials from two of these municipalities commented that such explanations could help with making presentations to the select board when asking for resources to deal with the deficiencies," Hoffer wrote.

The report recommends that VTrans develop a process for notifying municipalities when a new bridge inspection report is available. It also recommends that the department develop guidelines for inspectors including how much detail they should put in their reports.

Chad Allen, who is asset management director of the Agency of Transportation, said in an interview Tuesday that the department accepts the recommendations in the auditor's report, including providing more detail in the inspection reports.

"We're already getting out there right now and we've talked to the crews about the narrative and how much detail to put in there," he said.

He also said he would encourage towns to be more proactive when it comes to making repairs.

"I think that when you have an inspection report and it's something that needs to be fixed and it's on a bridge, I'd be inclined to fix that if I was a bridge owner," Allen said.

In comments on a draft of the report, Vermont's Secretary of Transportation, Joe Flynn, said VTrans will start sending annual letters to municipalities reminding them that bridge safety inspection reports are available online.

In addition, Flynn wrote, the department would provide additional guidance to inspectors, specifically about notifying municipalities about a "critical finding" — "a structural or safety related deficiency that requires immediate or timely, before the next inspection, action."

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