Drone footage from May 2019 showed signs of damage on the Interstate 40 bridge that connects West Memphis to Memphis, Arkansas Department of Transportation public information officer Dave Parker told Talk Business & Politics. The bridge was later inspected in September 2019 and it’s not clear if the damage was noted or if any steps were taken to repair it at that time, he said.
“That’s what we are looking into right now … we don’t have that answer,” he said.
The bridge, one of the busiest commerce bridges in the U.S., remains closed as officials determine the best way to proceed with repairs. An engineer discovered a major break earlier this week in one of the primary support beams prompting the bridge’s immediate evacuation and closure.
Officials said if the damage had not been discovered it could have led to catastrophic failure of the bridge. All boat and barge traffic passing underneath the bridge had temporarily been halted while teams assessed the bridge’s safety while conducting repairs. The Associated Press reported Friday (May 14) that river traffic had been reopened.
“Based on information provided to us by the Tennessee Department of Transportation, the Coast Guard has determined that transit under the I-40 bridge is safe for maritime traffic,” Coast Guard Capt. Ryan Rhodes, captain of the Port of Memphis, said in a statement.
ArDOT is responsible for the inspection of the bridge while the Tennessee Department of Transportation will conduct the repair work. How much it will cost is still unknown. A few early reports said it could take months to repair the bridge, but Parker is hesitant to estimate how long traffic won’t be allowed on the bridge. Once repairs begin, it might be possible to open the bridge to limited traffic, but at this point, it’s too preliminary. The bridge is being thoroughly inspected to make sure there are no other damage concerns that need to be fixed, he added.
The break in the bridge is unique, and that’s adding complications to the process, Parker said. A smaller version of this type of bridge in Florida had a similar crack, but other than that there is no frame of reference for repair teams as they explore repair options, he said.
The bridge closure is projected to cause significant economic damage to the trucking industry.
“Around 12,500 trucks traveled over the I-40 bridge each day and an additional 14,000 trucks cross the I-55 bridge daily. The closure of the I-40 bridge creates bottlenecks and delays impacting all 26,500 trucks relying on this major freight corridor connecting east and west,” said Arkansas Trucking Association President Shannon Newton. “Using GPS data, we can discern that a previous 8-minute drive is now averaging 84 minutes. This additional transit time at $1.20 a minute for 26,500 trucks is costing the trucking industry more than $2.4 million each day that the bridge is closed.”
Shippers should prepare for longer transit times and surcharges until the flow of traffic is restored. The supply chain and trucking in particular has already been operating at maximum capacity for the past several months.
“Freight is like water,” Newton said. “It will continue to flow. Our industry will continue to make deliveries. But if the additional expense is prolonged, it is likely to be passed on to consumers. … “Driver shortages, equipment shortages, fuel shortages and now a major roadblock through one of our country’s busiest trade corridors – an impact to consumers is inevitable.”
All traffic has now been re-routed to the 60-year-old I-55 bridge. On a typical day the I-40 bridge has about 41,000 vehicles while the I-55 bridge has about 42,000. The older bridge was inspected earlier this week, and engineers haven’t expressed any concerns over the significant increase in use it will have to endure, Parker said.
Members of the Arkansas and Tennessee Congressional Delegations have asked U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to help “safely and efficiently” fix the bridge, according to a statement from U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark. Boozman said in the statement that Buttigieg has committed to work with both states to fix the bridge.
“I appreciate Secretary Buttigieg’s willingness to discuss the I-40 bridge closure in more detail and his commitment to work with the Arkansas and Tennessee Departments of Transportation. This critical artery for the region must be safely reopened as soon as possible,” Boozman said in a statement. “Working together, we can mitigate continued disruption to commerce and transportation needs along this corridor.”