Audit finds some Orange County pedestrian bridges not properly inspected, repaired

Investigation by county comptroller shows bridges not accurately maintained

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. – An audit to evaluate the maintenance of bridges within Orange County found some pedestrian bridges were not accurately monitored, repaired, inspected and documented by county department officials.

On Thursday, Orange County Comptroller Phil Diamond released the results of the 41-page audit, conducted from January 2017 to December 2019.

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The report, prompted by the pedestrian bridge collapse at Florida International University in 2018, detailed how the Florida Department of Transportation and the county’s Public Works Department failed to comply with bridge inspection and repair regulations outlined by the Federal Highway Administration.

According to the report, when the county’s Public Works Department assigned bridge maintenance responsibilities to the Roads and Drainage Division in 2017, 28 of 100 bridge inspection reports were not received, resulting in an inability to monitor or repair these bridges.

“And obviously for this system to work, after the state inspects the bridges and says here’s what you need to do to make the bridges safe and to keep them safe, those repairs need to be done,” Diamond said.

While Orange County has more than 600 bridges and major drainage structures, there are 21 pedestrian bridges, or bridges less than 20 feet long, that require inspection by qualified structural engineers, comptroller investigators wrote.

Comptroller investigators discovered that, of those 21 pedestrian bridges — found at the Orange County Convention Center, within county parks and along county roadways — only three were inspected by FDOT within the audit period, the report shows.

“Whether they ought to be inspected every two years, every five years, we can’t recommend, but we do know it’s not never and it’s something that should be done periodically,” Diamond said.

Issues identified by FDOT, which is responsible for examining the structural soundness of the bridge, were not tracked or repaired by the county, the report continues.

“Without a structural engineer to prioritize bridge repairs, repairs were not timely completed,” comptroller investigators wrote.

The audit investigated 31 bridges and found 81% were not evaluated by a structural engineer. By 2020, only 73 of the 177 issues with the sample of bridges examined had been corrected.

“Of the 73 issues corrected, 50% related to graffiti, clearing vegetation and replacing reflectors,” the report reads.

Additionally, multiple bridge issues were not listed on a master tracking sheet after the repairs were received. Of the issues that were listed, some contained incorrect information, such as false repair status and dates.

Since the audit’s release, Joseph Kunkel, the Public Works Department director, agreed with all recommendations provided by the Orange County Comptroller’s Office.

In a memo Kunkel wrote, “We believe that through our experiences during the audit period, the addition of dedicated staff, and the input and assistance of the audit team, we now have a sound comprehensive bridge program.”

Comptrollers investigators commended management for addressing changes proposed in the report and adding another structural engineer dedicated to bridge maintenance.

County officials added they consistently believed that all of the bridges in the county were safe. A spokesperson said prior to the audit recommendations, maintenance personnel would conduct monthly and regular visual inspections, as well as perform regular cleaning and minor maintenance activities. The county said the recommendations from the audit have helped with improving the efficiency, general oversight, and tracking of the bridge program.

A spokesperson from the Orange County Convention Center said in a statement to News 6, “The Orange County Convention Center remains committed to the safety and integrity of its four (4) pedestrian bridges, all of which are in good operational standing and continue to provide a safe walkway for guests. With our new defined maintenance schedule, we intend to go above state standards and requirements to ensure the safety and longevity of the bridges through monthly staff inspections, in addition to biennial inspections by qualified professional engineering firms.”

About the Authors:

Samantha started at WKMG-TV in September 2020. Before joining the News 6 team, Samantha was a political reporter for The Villages Daily Sun and has had freelance work featured in the Evansville Courier-Press and The Community Paper. When not writing, she enjoys travelling and performing improv comedy.