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Home > Publications > Quill > Documents of death


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Thursday, September 27, 2007
Documents of death

Five public records to identify failing

David Cullier

Journalists don’t have to wait until a catastrophe to cover failing infrastructure in their communities.

Following the Minneapolis bridge collapse, media outlets throughout the country scrambled to find documents pinpointing crumbling bridges in their own communities. Some government agencies responded by making the records secret, saying that news reporting highlights vulnerable targets for terrorists and that journalists wouldn’t be able to interpret the records.

Yet, as we have seen these past six years, U.S. citizens are in as much danger from our own country’s structural deficiencies as from lurking jihadists. Reporting about vulnerabilities usually nudges officials to action.

Here are documents you can use for spotting failing infrastructure in your community.

Terrible train crossings

The Federal Railroad Administration provides car-train accident data online for each state going back to 1975. Go to safetydata.fra.dot.gov/officeofsafety/Downloads and click on the “Accident data on demand” link; choose “Highway Rail Accidents” from the table pull-down menu. Then choose a year, your state and a format (such as Excel).

Sort by the columns labeled county, city and highway to see where the trouble spots are in your state. Also, check out the “TOTKLD” column for fatalities, and the “GXID” column to identify specific crossings that have had the most accidents.

Bad bridges

Most states provide inspection data for bridges, although some states have been reluctant to hand it out, even after the Minneapolis collapse. If that’s the case, the national bridge inventory is maintained by the Federal Highway Administration. You can find it at www.fhwa.dot.gov/bridge/britab.htm (click on “Download NBI ASCII files”). If you need assistance understanding it, read the online files or call the FHA media office at (202) 366-0660.

Another good online source for examining and learning about the bridge inventory is at nationalbridges.com, organized by Alexander Svirsky, a direct-marketing data specialist from Massachusetts.

Dam secret data

The U.S. Army of Corps of Engineers used to provide the national inventory of dams online for free. The data allowed journalists to find high-risk dams, as well as the last date of inspection and whether the dam has an emergency action plan. At my last newspaper, this data helped identify an earthen dam that was about to blow, and the news coverage prompted funding to fix it.

Alas, this year the Corps of Engineers decided to make it secret because it deems the information “internal” in nature and a risk to national security. If you want more information about the secret records, or want to push for disclosure, contact the Corps media affairs office at (202) 761-0011; the attorney handling the denials, Timothy Felker, at (703) 428-8124 or timothy.l.felker@erdc.usace.army.mil; or your congressional delegation. This denial is a lawsuit waiting to happen, particularly when an unsuspecting town is washed away by a collapsing dam.

Hellish highways

Dangerous sections of highways and roads can be identified by analyzing Fatal Accident Reporting System (FARS) data. You can search the data online and look at general statistical information at www-fars.nhtsa.dot.gov or download raw data from 1975 until 2005 at ftp.nhtsa.dot.gov/FARS. Also, state departments of transportation can provide records, including maps, showing crumbling highways; as well as inspection reports that detail contractor errors.

Local perils

Local agencies maintain a wealth of documents that can help you assess the community’s infrastructure. Some ideas worth pursuing: fire inspection records of dilapidated but heavily frequented public buildings; road department pothole complaints; tornado siren maintenance records and sound coverage area; toxic release records indicating leaking pipelines and underground storage tanks; and court records and claims against government jurisdictions.

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