The Federal Highway Administration has issued a final rule spelling out the requirements for the first federal inspection program for highway tunnels.

The new National Tunnel Inspection Standards, published in the Federal Register on July 14, are similar to the nearly 50-year-old national requirements for bridge inspections.

The tunnel inspection rule is to take effect on Aug. 13.

The new standards, which stem from a provision in 2012’s Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act, call for state and local agencies that own such tunnels to carry out routine examinations of that infrastructure at least every two years.

The rule also mandates training and a national certification program for inspectors and sets minimum requirements for inspection staff.

Gregory Nadeau, FHWA’s acting administrator, said in a statement, “The new standards will ensure inspections are consistent and focused to help ensure the public’s safety.”

For example, a program manager must be a registered professional engineer or have 10 years of tunnel or bridge inspection experience and also be a nationally certified bridge inspector.

FHWA will provide training for state and local engineers on issues such as which parts of tunnel structures to examine and how to report the data.

In addition, tunnel agencies must notify FHWA within 24 hours after they find a “critical” problem and let FHWA know what further monitoring or other actions they plan to take.

Moreover, the new program seeks to compile a national tunnel inventory, using information that state and local authorities collect and report to FHWA.

In its Federal Register notice, FHWA says it expects the new program to lead to only a "modest" rise in tunnel inspection costs because most agencies already check their tunnels at least every 24 months.

FHWA said a 2003 survey indicated that there are about 350 tunnel bores in the U.S. and the average inspection interval for the 37 owners that reported that information was 2.05 years.

The agency adds, "Inspections are vital to preventing tunnel collapses and closures, which often result in millions of dollars in repair and user-fee costs."

The New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority bridges and tunnels agency, which oversees the Hugh L. Carey (formerly the Brooklyn-Battery) and Queens Midtown tunnels in New York City, welcomed the new federal standards. A spokesperson said that they "will foster a more uniform approach to tunnel inspections and … will  help insure the safety and integrity of tunnel facilities nationwide."

The spokesperson added that MTA's tunnel inspection procedure "is already in general compliance with the new [FHWA] requirements."

Story updated on July 21 to include N.Y. MTA comments.