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I-40- still closed Sunday afternoon, end still not in sight

Traffic pours over the White River bridge near Augusta, Ark., on U.S. Highway 67-167, which is the westbound detour for the flooding. (Associated Press: DANNY JOHNSTON)

The Trucker News Services

5/8/2011

LITTLE ROCK, Ark.  — Floodwaters in eastern Arkansas are slowly receding, but motorists still have to detour from Interstate 40 to get across the White River and officials say significant lowering of flood levels is days away.

The National Weather Service office in North Little Rock said Sunday that a temporary gauge placed in the White River at I-40 shows the river has crested at that point. The White has also crested upriver, but it is not expected to crest south at Clarendon until Tuesday.

The Mississippi River is forecast to keep rising at Arkansas City through Friday, and the weather service says the Mississippi has to lower before east Arkansas rivers can significantly drain.

The weather service says no storms are in the short-term forecast. Prolonged rainfall in April contributed to the flooding.

On Friday,  a day when the sun shone bright with hardly a cloud in the sky, the news for the trucking industry continued to darken less than 24 hours after Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department (AHTD) officials were forced to close Interstate 40 where it crosses the White River some 50 miles east of here because of flooding.

It’s a stretch of highway that’s used by 30,000 to 35,000 cars and trucks daily.

What’s more, there is no end in sight.

At 3 p.m., the AHTD announced that water had overtaken Arkansas 1 near St. Charles, Ark., forcing them to abandon the initial eastbound detour.

“This is an ever-changing situation,” AHTD spokesman Glenn Bolick told a news conference Friday afternoon at department headquarters.

The new detour announced necessitated separating car and truck traffic, Bolick said.

AHTD offered two alternative eastbound truck detours, one 219 miles long, the other 296 miles long.

The shorter of the two leaves I-40 at Exit 193 at Hazen, Ark., and goes south on Highway 63 to Stuttgart, Ark., where truckers can pick up U.S. Highway 165 to Dumas, Ark., and then take U.S. Highway 65 south to Lake Village, Ark. Just south of Lake Village, truckers can take U.S. Highway 82 to Greenville, Miss., where they can connect with U.S. Highway 61 north into Memphis, Tenn.

The longer route takes Exit 193 at Hazen to Stuttgart, but at Stuttgart, truckers can take U.S. Highway 79 to Pine Bluff, Ark., then U.S. Highway 65 to Dumas.

It should be noted that the westbound detour not being affected. Westbound traffic is being detoured at Brinkley some 14 miles east of Exit 202. That traffic is being sent north on Highway 49 north to Fair Oaks, then Highway 64 west to Bald Knob and then Highway 67 south to Little Rock, a distance of some 110 miles.

However, a trucker responding to a posting on Facebook suggested that truckers entering Arkansas from Tennessee take Interstate 55 north a short distance to U.S. Highway 64 and take Highway 64 to Bald Knob. “It's much easier,” she said.

The new passenger car detour leaves I-40 at Hazen, goes south the Stuttgart where cars turn east on U.S. Highway 79. The eastbound car detour is 63 miles.

Bolick said there were two reasons officials decided to separate cars and trucks.

“The No. 1 reason is safety,” he said. “The other is that Highway 79 east of Stuttgart is not capable of handling interstate truck traffic. It would be beaten to pieces at the end of the weekend.”

Bolick said the AHTD was using message boards throughout Arkansas to warn of the closing of I-40. The Texas Department of Transportation and the Tennessee Department of Transportation are also announcing the closing on message boards.

Bolick encouraged truckers coming east on Interstate 30 out of Texas who ultimately need to wind up north of Memphis to take U.S. Highway 82 at Texas and go across south Arkansas and into Mississippi just west of Greenville.

Emanuel Banks, assistant chief engineer for operations at AHTD, said officials had no idea when the flooding would clear from I-40.

“The White River is not even expected to crest until Sunday,” he said.

AHTD officials reminded motorists that once the water is off the road, crews will have to examine the roadway to make sure it is safe for travel.

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Banks said Arkansas officials had spoken with Mississippi officials who felt the roadway would not flood.

“If anything changes over the weekend, they will notify us,” he said.

Beyond what’s recommended by Arkansas highway officials, truckers are suggesting alternate routes to avoid Arkansas altogether.

"Anyone trying to drive from Oklahoma City to Nashville, it is 122 miles longer to take I-44 to St. Louis then I-64, I-57, then I-24 to Nashville or the reverse is to take I-40 direct,” Mark Richardson wrote. “At freeway speed this extra distance would cost about two hours, and at 6 mpg about 20 gallons of extra diesel fuel, too.”

To see a map of the detours, go to www.arkansashighways.com and click on the I-40 detour information icon.

Lyndon Finney of The Trucker staff may be contacted to comment at editor@thetrucker.com.

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