Arkansas, Tennessee highway officials say I-40 Mississippi River bridge will remain closed until further notice

Arkansas, Tennessee highway officials say I-40 Mississippi River bridge will remain closed until further notice

Hernando DeSoto Bridge was shut down Monday evening after routine inspection uncovered a ‘significant fracture’ on the I-40 Mississippi River bridge truss near Memphis

BCN Executive Editor Wesley Brown – May 12, 2020 — The Arkansas Department of Transportation (ArDOT) and the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) have indefinitely down the Interstate 40 bridge over the Mississippi River, leaving thousands of motorists and truckers stranded or stuck in three-state traffic jams in the area surrounding one of the nation’s busiest transportation corridors.

In a press conference held Wednesday (May 12) in Little Rock, ArDOT Director Lorie Tudor said highway officials in Tennessee and Arkansas are working together to safely repair and reopen the Interstate 40 Bridge over the Mississippi River. ArDOT officials later confirmed on Friday that an image captured by an inspector’s drone video shows evidence of damage in the same area of the fracture that caused the Interstate 40 Bridge to be shut down earlier, according to agency officials.

“That evaluation is ongoing. Once this evaluation is complete, remedy will be determined,” Tudor said during today’s press briefing. “It is too early to be sure, but we are hopeful that a short-term and a long-term solution will be made available. Our goal is to reopen the bridge as soon as possible while ensuring the safety of motorists and barge traffic.”

Tudor said a routine bridge inspection on May 11 by global engineering firm Michael Baker International revealed a significant fracture in a steel support beam that is crucial for the structure of the bridge. The inspector immediately notified emergency services and shut down all access to the bridge, including barge traffic on the Mississippi River.

Tudor called the “significant fracture” crucial to the structural integrity of the I-40 double arch bridge between West Memphis, Arkansas, and Memphis, Tenn., built between 1967 and 1973.  Formally known as the Hernando de Soto Bridge, the M-shaped crossing had a seismic retrofit between 2000 and 2011 to allow the Mississippi River structure to withstand a 7.7 magnitude earthquake.

The bridge is located within 100 miles of the New Madrid Seismic zone, a major earthquake fault line that abuts parts of Arkansas and nearby Tennessee, Missouri, Mississippi and four other Midwest states. The bridge was also inspected in September 2020, but that safety check did not reveal any structural deficiencies, highway officials said.

“The fracture is a result of wear-and-tear,” said Steve Frisbee, ArDOT assistance chief engineer of operations. “We are taking extra precautions and inspecting the rest of the bridge for problematic damage while it is closed to traffic.” 

Arkansas and Tennessee share responsibilities and costs for the bridge; ARDOT manages inspections while TDOT oversees maintenance and repairs. TDOT Chief Engineer Paul Degges said the repairs could take weeks, possibly months. 

“Even simple solutions such as welding a repair into place is more complicated with this bridge due to its size and that it’s over water,” Frisbee explained.

ArDOT officials said they have completed more than 10,000 bridge inspections with 27 teams and additional consultants in 2020. Tudor said Tennessee and Arkansas highway officials have called in nationally known engineering experts in bridge forensics to perform a diagnostic evaluation to help determine what work may be needed.

In making the case for shutting down a major traffic corridor in the U.S., Tudor raised the specter other bridge failures over major U.S. highways or interstates, including the collapse of the I-40 bridge in Webbers Falls, Okla., almost exactly 19 years ago. That incident caused 14 people to plunge to their death in the Arkansas River after a river towboat bushed a barge into a bridge support beam.

“This fracture had the potential of becoming a catastrophic event that was prevented by our staff’s diligent effort in managing our bridge inspection program,” Tudor, who was named ArDOT Director by Gov. Asa Hutchinson in late February. She replaced former ArDOT Director Scott Bennett who resigned on March 20.

In her first major crisis management situation, Tudor said she also spoke today with TDOT Commissioner Clay Bright, who has retained emergency contracting authority from the Federal Highway Administration to quickly mitigate the bridge repairs.

Following ArDOT’s press conference at noon Tuesday, TDOT officials released a statement later in the afternoon saying contract crews will begin emergency repairs on the I-40 bridge after Monday’s routine inspection uncovered a crack in the bottom side of the bridge truss.

“For the motoring public’s safety, the bridge will be entirely shut down while crews investigate the crack’s extent further and then repair the problem, which could take some time,” TDOT said of the Arkansas-Tennessee-Mississippi corridor that carries more than 41,000 vehicles per day.

Mimicking Tudor’s statement, TDOR officials said it is still unclear how long the repairs will take. Detours are in place in Tennessee and Arkansas. Traffic is also being rerouted in both directions to I-55 as an alternate route across the river, officials said. River barge traffic is also shut down until further notice.

The I-40 gridlock in the West-Memphis-Memphis area comes as President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris met with Republican and Democratic leaders today at the White House following a weeklong U.S. roadshow to sell a $4.1 trillion infrastructure to the American people.

The first phase of the Biden administration’s long-term economic strategy includes a once-in-a-lifetime government job program to rebuild the nation’s crumbling infrastructure. The lion’s share of that $2.3 trillion of that investment would go toward upgrading 20,000 miles of highways and roads and repairing 10,000 of the nation’s oldest bridges. The plans also call for upgrading the nation’s energy grid, water systems, urban transit links, and rural broadband networks over the next decade.

Following today’s meeting with Biden and Harris, Republicans Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and House Minority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California both said they are miles apart to reaching an agreement with Democrats on a nationwide infrastructure bill. Among many things, the Republican leaders said they could not support paying for the president’s American Jobs Plan by rescinding former President Donald Trump’s 2017 $1.8 trillion corporate tax cut.

To view Tudor’s press briefing and hear Q&A on YouTube with local and national reporters, click here. To find additional information on traffic information and alternate routes near the Memphis metropolitan area, go to IDriveArkansas.com or ARDOT.gov.

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