Once again, the federal government is allowing red tape to sidetrack important goals and increase costs.

This time, some good ideas about how to reform national rules for state bridge inspections are creaking, tottering and threatening to collapse under the load from red tape.The U.S. Department of Transportation had a good idea when it proposed allowing states to inspect newer and safer bridges less frequently so that states would have more time to spend with more problematic bridges.

That extra time could be well-used, considering 42 percent of the nation's bridges - and one of every 13 bridges in Utah - are considered "deficient."

But things went awry when the transportation department tried to implement its idea. As Utah bridge inspector Ron Rasmussen said, "The trouble is that providing all the details they want - to justify having a bridge inspected less often - would take almost as much time as the inspection itself."

So no time is saved. Worse, the federal government came up with ideas about how states should spend the time they supposedly saved but actually didn't. For example, it ordered them to do more extensive underwater inspections of bridge supports.

The cumulative effect is that states now have more than ever to do, and less time to do it. In fact, Utah officials said they would need a new inspector to help the other three current inspectors do the required work, and would also have to contract with divers for underwater inspections.

Finding the extra money for any such increased governmental work is difficult in the currently tight economic times - and may have been unnecessary if the federal government had not lost sight of its original goals.

Instead of demanding time-consuming documentation, why doesn't the department accomplish its goal by simply saying any bridge less than five years old or with a "sufficiency rating" of 90 out of 100 qualifies for less frequent inspections. Past inspections on file could be proof of qualification.

That or similarly simple rules would save more time - and the states could use it to handle the other requirements they must now meet.