Current flows on the Arkansas River will result in closure of the Interstate 540 bridge between Van Buren and Fort Smith and the U.S. 64 (Midland) bridge between Van Buren and Fort Smith, according to the Arkansas Department of Transportation (ArDOT).
Flooding in Fort Smith also prompted the Fort Smith Public School District to “suspend” classes
The U.S. Corps of Engineers is predicting the Arkansas River in the Fort Smith area will crest Tuesday at 42.5 feet, well above the flood stage of 22 feet and above the area record of 38.1 feet. As of 4 p.m. Monday (May 27) the level was 39.8 feet. River flows were at 501,899 cubic feet per second (cfs) as of 5 p.m. Monday, up 4.5% from the 480,355 cfs at midnight.
During a Monday afternoon meeting at the Sebastian County Department of Emergency Management office, Adams told U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., and U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, R-Rogers. about the status of the bridge. Boozman and Womack were in Fort Smith on Monday meeting with civic and business leaders and touring flooded areas.
The concern, according to Chad Adams, regional ArDOT director, is the pressure the increased flows are placing on steel beams supporting the bridges. He said video and other data of the structures and river flow have been sent to bridge engineers in Little Rock. Any decision to close the bridges would have to come from ArDOT officials in Little Rock.
Just before 6 p.m., ArDOT announced the closures.
“Beginning at 10:00 p.m. this evening, crews will close the U.S. Highway 71B (Broadway St.) bridge. This structure is known locally as the Midland Bridge. There is no detour available,” noted the statement from Danny Straessle, ArDOT public information officer. “Following the closure of the Midland Bridge, crews will close the I-540 river bridge. Northbound traffic will be required to take Exit 5 [Kelley Highway[. Southbound traffic will be required to take Exit 3 [Van Buren].”
Closing the four-lane bridges will have a big impact on traffic patterns into and out of Fort Smith and Van Buren. The I-540 bridge handles around 50,000 vehicles a day, and the U.S. 64 bridge sees about 22,000 vehicles a day. The smaller two-lane Highway 59 bridge that goes across the Trimble Lock & Dam in Barling handles about 8,200 vehicles a day, according to ArDOT data.
If the 59 bridge were to close, access to Fort Smith would be limited to traveling through Spiro, Okla., and into Poteau to enter the southern point of I-540. The other route would be through Ozark, west on Highway 22, and then Highway 96 to Greenwood and up U.S. 71 into south Fort Smith. Portions of Highway 22 between Charleston and Barling are already closed because of flooding and the crest has not yet been reached.
Fort Smith Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Tim Allen told Talk Business & Politics the flooding will make it difficult, if not impossible, for thousands of workers to return to work on Tuesday following the Memorial Day weekend.
ARDOT also closed the Arkansas river bridge at Ozark.
“The nearest Arkansas River crossings from Ozark include the State Highway 59 Bridge at Barling and the State Highway 109 Bridge at Morrison Bluff. ARDOT crews continue to monitor highways throughout the Arkansas River basin for potential closures due to high water,” noted the ARDOT statement. “There are approximately 10 segments of State Highways closed in the River Valley with more expected in the coming days.”
Flooding in Fort Smith also resulted in Fort Smith Public School District officials suspending classes.
“Today, we know many students, teachers and staff are dealing with flood waters in or near their homes. Other members of the FSPS team, who live in Eastern Oklahoma and in the surrounding Arkansas communities, cannot easily enter Fort Smith. There is also limited access to roadways around school sites like Barling, Woods, Sutton, Morrison Elementary Schools and Chaffin and Kimmons Junior High Schools. Flash flooding is being forecast for Tuesday and Wednesday of this week,” noted the statement. “We will seek a waiver from the Arkansas Department of Education for these remaining days of the 2018-2019 school year. If approved, this will allow our district to dismiss Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday without the need to make up these last days of this year.”
Classes will also be closed at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith.