WASHINGTON — The collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis Aug. 1 focused attention on the condition of the nation’s highway bridges, but a report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released last month warns that many of the nation’s railroad bridges and tunnels may also be at risk.
While most highway bridges are built and maintained by states and local governments, railroad bridges and tunnels are the property of the railroads themselves and do not receive regular inspections by federal safety officials. Railroads own and maintain some 76,000 bridges and 800 tunnels in the United States.
“We just don’t know the condition of railroad bridges and tunnels, some of which are more than 100 years old,” said U.S. Rep. James L. Oberstar, D-Minn., chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure and a requestor of the GAO study. “We have no regulations or standards for railroad bridge and tunnel maintenance or inspection. The Federal Railroad Administration, the agency in charge of rail safety, has only five people to deal with the thousands of bridges and tunnels in this country.”
“Since the 2001 fire in the Howard Street Tunnel in Baltimore, I have been deeply concerned about both the safety of tunnels and our nation’s urgent need to develop plans to replace such critical pieces of infrastructure,” said U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, D-Md., a co-requestor of the report. “I joined Chairman Oberstar last year in requesting that the GAO undertake this study to provide comprehensive information on the safety of existing railroad tunnels and bridges as well as to identify what needs to be done to ensure adequate investment in the system.”
Oberstar said the Committee will look more closely at bridge and tunnel safety when it brings H.R. 2095, the Federal Railroad Safety Improvement Act of 2007 to the floor of the House this fall. Oberstar is the author of the bill, and Cummings is a cosponsor.