Don’t expect lights on a third bridge to Memphis

by Paul Holmes ([email protected]) 2,099 views 

Remember when automobile headlight switches had three positions — off, parking lights only and headlights fully on?

So what’s the big deal, you might ask? That three position headlight switch figures prominently in one of my vivid memories of the bridge across the Mississippi River connecting Memphis and West Memphis.

We were headed west across the bridge following a two-hour Mississippi River cruise when my date told me it was too dark on the road and asked me to check my headlights. Insisting I had them on, I nevertheless pulled on the light switch and discovered, in a hit to my imagined driving prowess, that I had turned on only the parking lights. The lesson: be sure you know your machinery and how to use it before putting it in gear.

There was no “new bridge” for me and my peers growing up in Crittenden County in the 1960s. We were too young to have crossed the Mighty Mississippi on the Harahan Bridge, which was opened in 1916 and in 1917 had a “carriageway” hung on each side to accommodate the growing automobile traffic. The two-lane, wooden Harahan partially burned in the late 1920s but was repaired and still used by farm vehicles until 1954, replaced for auto traffic by the four-lane Memphis-Arkansas Bridge in 1949. Perhaps our elders called the Memphis-Arkansas the “new bridge,” but we had no basis for comparison.

If as teens we wanted to go to Memphis and browse the pawnshops and small retail stores that once dotted the historic street, we crossed the river on what was to us, THE Bridge, the Memphis-Arkansas Bridge.

The bridge, which is part of Interstate 55 that runs north and south through the middle of the county, puts you into the Bluff City on Crump Boulevard, named of course for political boss E.H. Crump. From there, it was just a few short blocks to Beale Street. The U.S. Navy base at Millington hosted many cash-strapped junior sailors, so we were always on the lookout for a pawned official government-issued Navy pea coat. Turns out, a sailor would no sooner part with his pea coat than his right arm, so none of us ever got one.

Though we crossed the bridge many times, there is another, perhaps potentially deadly incident that stands out among those crossings. One Saturday morning, my friend Jerry and I were zipping across the bridge toward Memphis when he suddenly yelled for me to “hold on!” and barely navigated that old 1963 pickup around a vehicle that was stopped in the outside lane, the driver jacking the car up to replace a flat tire. The lesson: be just as aware of what another might do as you are your own actions.

The “new bridge,” named the Hernando DeSoto Bridge, the one that carries Interstate 40 traffic across the river north of the existing I-55 Memphis-Arkansas Bridge, was opened to traffic in 1973. By now, everyone who hasn’t been living under a rock knows that the I-40 bridge, the newer of the two car and truck bridges across the Mississippi River, was closed on May 11 after inspectors found a crack in one of two 900-foot horizontal steel beams critical for the bridge’s structural integrity.

The closure left only the “old” I-55 bridge in service to carry the load, up to nearly 70,000 vehicles per day. The I-40 bridge closure has snarled traffic, delayed motorists, frustrated truckers bound by drive-time limits and delayed the movement of freight across the country. Economic losses are being tallied in the millions daily.

The Biden administration has used the I-40 bridge closure as a talking point to plug its infrastructure package which Congress is still wrangling over.

In 2006, South Carolina-based Wilbur Smith Associates did a “Mississippi River Crossing Feasibility and Location Study” for the Tennessee Department of Transportation and priced the cheapest option — a connection to I-69, just north of Mud Island in the Frayser area — at $501 million to $518 million.

Democratic Tennessee State Reps. Joe Towns and Dwayne Thompson, both of Memphis, in May revived a presumed dead-and-buried debate about building a third bridge. Ten years ago, many public officials were on fire for a new bridge, bolstered by the projection that a new bridge would allow the region to create an estimated $2.2 billion in additional goods and services and increase personal incomes by $1.5 billion over 20 years.

And there were also studies showing that losing both existing bridges (perhaps by earthquake or nowadays terrorism) would cost the region $4 billion. Supporters of a third bridge noted that neither of the existing bridges were built with an emergency lane, which can create a potentially dangerous or deadly situation. Now, though, transportation officials on both sides of the river have little enthusiasm for seeking more than a half-billion dollars for the third crossing, saying they’re focused on getting the bridge repaired and back in service.

It seems this situation represents a teachable moment — we should learn that our infrastructure needs close and continuous attention, and we must also spend our funds in the right places. What better place than another span across the river upon which so much of our country’s commerce relies?

Congress is divided over whether the Biden administration is asking too much or not enough money, or if items included in the proposal are truly infrastructure in the traditional sense of the word. No matter if the headlights are fully on in Washington in funding an infrastructure bill, it seems unfortunate that what probably won’t come out of the debate is a new “new bridge” across the Mississippi.

Editor’s note: Paul Holmes is editor-at-large for Northeast Arkansas Talk Business & Politics. He can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed are those of the author.