Editor’s note: See updated info at the end of this story.
Arkansas and Tennessee officials are focused on repairing and re-opening the Interstate 40 bridge rather than lobbying to build a third bridge across the Mississippi River between West Memphis and Memphis, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee said during a press conference Tuesday (May 18).
The bridge, also referred to as the Hernando de Soto Bridge, is one of the busiest freight bridges in the U.S. A fracture to a main support beam was discovered May 11 and it caused the immediate shutdown of the bridge that carries about 41,00 vehicles per day.
Engineers and other highway employees are working round the clock to repair the bridge closed a week ago when a major fracture was discovered in a primary support beam one week ago, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said during the joint press conference held in Memphis. A set of 35-foot long plates are under fabrication, and will be used to repair the break in the beam, Lee said. Highway officials still aren’t sure when traffic will be allowed on the bridge which is one of the busiest commerce bridges in the country.
“Our number one priority is the safety of the people that go across that bridge,” Lee said. “We want to repair this in the shortest time possible … but we will make sure we provide safety while it’s getting done.”
When asked how close the bridge failure came to causing a loss of life, both governors sidestepped the question, focusing on the fact it was caught before the bridge collapsed.
Hutchinson said economic impacts to the Natural State have been dramatic. The trucking industry already estimates its losing $2.4 million per day in lost time as all interstate traffic in the area has been re-routed through the nearly 70-year-old I-55 bridge.
Drones are being used to examine the I-55 bridge to ensure it remains a safe travel route, Tennessee officials said. An additional inspection was requested by ArDOT Director Lorie Tudor and Tennessee officials have complied with that request.
An unnamed employee with the Arkansas Department of Transportation was fired Monday for failure to find the fracture during several annual inspections conducted. Drone footage from May 2019 clearly shows a crack forming on the beam, Tudor said. The employee was supposed to inspect the bridge “inch by inch” months later, but didn’t report any damage. The case has been turned over to the federal government for a possible criminal probe.
Hutchinson praised Tudor’s decisive action to fire the employee, and he said he expects a thorough review of other bridges the employee inspected. The governor wasn’t sure how many bridges the employee had inspected.
“I think she handled it perfectly well,” Hutchinson said.
Lee was asked about his criticism of President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan in the weeks leading up to the bridge shutdown. Lee said he was “troubled” by the size of the proposed $2 trillion package, and he thinks raising corporate taxes to cover the cost will impact jobs. Lee did admit that if federal highway dollars are doled to his state he would accept them. Lee said Tuesday he thinks Biden’s package needs to focus more on bridge and road construction and repairs.
Officials from both states noted that their initial plan was to get barge traffic flowing in the river beneath the bridge and that started Friday. The next phase is to get the bridge repaired to the point that crews can safely work to re-open it to traffic.
ArDOT provided the following information late Tuesday.
Phase I will add two 30 foot steel plates (18,000 lbs each) on either side of the fracture to strengthen the bridge for contractors and equipment to safely work on Phase II repairs. Kiewit has already mobilized and committed to working 24 hours a day until work is completed. Work platforms for the operations will go up this week.
Phase II will cut out and replace the damaged member and inspect the bridge for any additional concerns that need to be addressed before traffic returns to the bridge. Traffic cannot safely return to the bridge until both of these repair phases are completed. Weather permitting, TDOT states that while repairs could take several months but better estimates will be available as repairs progress.
TDOT also dedicated two inspection teams and drones to work on the Interstate 55 Mississippi River Bridge and is using an overabundance of caution in reviewing new footage and previous inspection reports to verify the safety of the older bridge.