Common Council members stunned to learn railroad bridge inspection reports are unavailable

MILWAUKEE -- A demand for answers, and a call to action: Members of Milwaukee's Common Council are concerned about safety at a railroad bridge FOX6 News first spotlighted this past spring. It is located on S. 1st Street, in Milwaukee's Fifth Ward. Common Council members say they're so frustrated by what FOX6 has exposed, they now want to change federal law.

A city of Milwaukee engineer was called before the Common Council to explain what he has been able to find out about Canadian Pacific's claims the bridge has been inspected, and it's safe.

FOX6 News exposed serious concerns with the century-old span over S. 1st Street -- including vertical support beams rusted away at the base from road salt.

S. 1st Street Bridge

Canadian Pacific officials insisted they had inspected the bridge, but refused to show us any of the inspection reports.

Now, we've learned the city engineer has had the same experience.

S. 1st Street bridge - Fifth Ward

"After a couple communications via email they did come back -- that we would not be getting it," Jeffrey Polenske, city of Milwaukee engineer said.

Jeffrey Polenske, city of Milwaukee engineer

By law, the railroad company is required to inspect the bridge each year, but the Federal Railroad Administration is the only agency that can audit those inspection reports.

"So can we get a copy from them?" Alderman Bob Donovan asked the city's engineer.

"I have not pursued that," Polenske said.

FOX6 News has. Four months ago, FOX6 sent the Federal Railroad Administration a Freedom of Information Act request for the inspection reports on the bridge -- going back 25 years. The FRA finally responded this month -- saying it doesn't have any.

The railroad company doesn't automatically send those reports in, and apparently, the federal government has never asked for them. In other words, the government has allowed the railroad company to regulate itself.

Common Council President Michael Murphy

It's a fact that floored Common Council President Michael Murphy.

"Doesn't it strike everyone as odd? We allow a private company to determine public safety," Murphy said.

Murphy has called for a three-point plan: urging Wisconsin's lawmakers in Washington to demand the inspection report, hiring an outside engineer if Canadian Pacific won't comply, and changing federal law.

"Quite honestly, I think that's the only way to get the attention of the Canadian Pacific company. Obviously they don't take this very serious,"

Canadian Pacific representatives were invited to attend the Common Council meeting Thursday, July 9th. The company declined.

S. 1st Street bridge - Fifth Ward