Inspect city garages, review contracts

It would be one thing if the crash of a concrete panel from the Lexington-owned Phoenix parking garage onto a downtown street had followed decades of neglect and inattention.

But that's not the case. The city paid a contractor more than $600,000 in 2006 to shore up the structure in response to an inspection by a national firm that specializes in parking garages.

Somehow, though, despite the attention and taxpayer money spent on repairs, no one noticed or did anything to fix the corroding steel beam hidden behind an electrical room's drop ceiling.

That concealed and badly deteriorated beam caused a 28-foot, 7-ton panel to come crashing down from the upper deck Sunday onto a sidewalk on East Vine, where, thankfully, no one was walking or standing.

We don't know what the statute of limitations is on city contracts. But if there's any way the present administration can trace this potentially deadly lapse to its source and demand some accountability, it should.

The fact that the beam was concealed by the ceiling is no excuse for not identifying its deteriorated condition. The city hires outside experts because they have the expertise to recognize problems that are not readily apparent.

The city depends on these experts to keep other garages, including the Annex garage which is used by more motorists than any other city-owned garage, in safe repair.

On some days, more than 1,000 vehicles go in and out of the Annex garage, which provides access to the county clerk's office, a driver's license bureau and police station.

Despite its dilapidated appearance — metal poles hold up the infamous spiral exit — motorists continue to use the Annex garage because the city and its experts have certified it safe.

The Annex garage is inspected at least twice yearly, and loose concrete is routinely removed. The Phoenix garage, by contrast, was last inspected in 2006 before the last round of repairs.

Lexington is all too familiar with the tragedies that defects in parking garages can cause. A pregnant mother was killed in 2006 when a concrete slab was dislodged by a vehicle and came crashing down from the second floor of the Chase Bank parking garage.

At the time the city's director of code enforcement said the city should consider instituting regular inspections of all parking garages. It's not clear what, if anything, came of that proposal or whether the city's aging parking structures — those in private and public hands — are receiving regular inspections.

Mayor Jim Gray wisely sought a second opinion from a structural engineer before reopening the Phoenix garage and said he wants to consider more frequent inspections of parking structures.

Some downtown parking garages are nearing their 50th anniversaries and were the first generation of such structures.

It's time to put some thought into their futures and whether they can be upgraded or need to be replaced — before we get another 7-ton reminder.