House committee eyes railroad bridge, tunnel safety
The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee announced plans this week to review the structural safety of the nation’s aging railroad bridges and tunnels, many of which were built more than 100 years ago.
“We just don’t know the condition of railroad bridges and tunnels,” said Rep. James L. Oberstar, a Minnesota Democrat and chairman of the committee, in a statement Thursday. “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.”
The House committee has increased its attention on U.S. intermodal infrastructure safety since the Aug. 1 deadly collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis.
The country’s railroad system includes more than 76,000 railroad bridges and some 800 tunnels. With the exception of the 2001 fire in the Howard Street Tunnel in Baltimore, the rail bridges and tunnels have been safely used by the railroads.
However, a congressional watchdog agency warned in a report that “little information is publicly available on the condition of railroad bridges and tunnels and on their contribution to congestion because the railroads consider this information proprietary and share it with the federal government selectively.”
The Government Accountability Office report acknowledged that the Federal Railroad Administration believes most Class I and Class II railroads provide adequate maintenance for the safe operation of their bridges and tunnels. But the GAO said the Federal Railroad Administration’s role in the nation’s rail bridge and tunnel investments should be re-evaluated.
The GAO also recommended the development of a “framework for implementing that role that includes identifying national goals, clarifying stakeholder roles, and ensuring that revenue sources and funding mechanisms achieve maximum national public benefits.
“The Department of Transportation’s draft Framework for a National Freight Policy takes a step forward, but more is needed to guide the implementation of a federal role in freight transportation investments,” the GAO said.
Oberstar said his committee would look more closely at railroad bridge and tunnel safety when it brings the 2007 Federal Railroad Safety Improvement Act legislation (H.R. 2095) to the House floor this fall. Oberstar authored the legislation, which is co-sponsored by Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, D-Md.