MEMPHIS, Tenn. — As river traffic reopened on the Mississippi River near Memphis, Tennessee, three days after a severe fracture was discovered in the Interstate 40 bridge linking Arkansas and Tennessee, authorities have said a video taken by an inspector two years ago found damage in the same area of the bridge where the fracture was discovered this week. The bridge remains closed to vehicular traffic.
The Arkansas Department of Transportation (ARDOT) on Friday, May 14, said an image captured by an inspector’s drone video in May 2019 showed evidence of damage on the lower side of the bridge, the same area as the crack that was discovered this week.
“ARDOT is now investigating to see if that damage was noted in a September 2019 inspection report and, if so, what actions were taken,” the agency said in a statement.
River traffic under the six-lane bridge was shut down Tuesday, May 11, after inspectors found a “significant fracture” in one of two 900-foot horizontal steel beams that are crucial for the bridge’s integrity, said Lorie Tudor, director of ARDOT.
More than 45 tugboats hauling about 700 barges had been idled along the river south and north of the bridge, waiting for clearance. Now they can cross under the Hernando De Soto Bridge, U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer Carlos Galarza told The Associated Press.
The bridge itself will remain closed to vehicles indefinitely, with road traffic rerouted to Interstate 55 and the 71-year-old Memphis & Arkansas Bridge, about 3 miles south.
The Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) said the department has met with its structural team, which includes TDOT; ARDOT; the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA); TDOT’s consultant, Michael Baker Inc. (MBI); and ARDOT’s consultant, HNTB Corp. The team found there is no indication that the bridge is continuing to deteriorate, but says additional modeling will be done before making a final determination that the bridge is structurally stable.
Currently, the team is exploring the benefits of installing a steel plate to “beef up” the fractured section and increase safety for the bridge’s existing configuration. The design team is also working on an interim repair concept that contemplates using steel rods that would be attached to the bridge and span over the fractured section, and provide the needed strength to reopen the bridge to vehicular traffic.
The interim repair would allow time for a new bridge component to be fabricated to replace the bridge’s damaged 37-foot-long section. The FHWA has requested that the section of damaged steel be preserved so a detailed forensic investigation of the plates can be done later.
Economic development officials had been concerned that an extended closure of river traffic could hurt the region’s economy and have ripple effects on the nation’s supply chain. Engineers wanted to ensure the bridge could stand on its own before reopening river traffic.
“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,” said Coast Guard Capt. Ryan Rhodes, captain of the Port of Memphis, said in a statement.
The Arkansas Trucking Association on Friday estimated the closure would cost the trucking industry at least $2.4 million a day because of the longer routes to cross the river. The group used data provided by the American Transportation Research Institute.
Arkansas Trucking Association President Shannon Newton said the trip on the I-40 bridge between the two states averaged eight minutes. Since the I-40 bridge closure, trips on the I-55 bridge being used as the closest alternate route have averaged 84 minutes.
“Even if you’re looking at six to eight weeks, that’s an incredible expenditure that the industry can’t simply absorb,” Newton said.
In an inspection for the 2020 National Bridge Inventory report, the FWHA said the I-40 bridge checked out in “fair” condition overall, with all primary structure elements sound and only some minor cracks and chips in the overall structure. Its structural evaluation checked out “somewhat better than minimum adequacy to tolerate being left in place as is.”
However, height and width clearances for oversize vehicles were “basically intolerable, requiring high priority of corrective action,” the inspectors found. Tennessee recommended “bridge deck replacement with only incidental widening.”
Arkansas transportation officials said the crack did not appear in the last inspection of the bridge, which occurred in September 2020. The bridge opened in 1973 and carries an average of about 50,000 vehicles a day, with about a quarter being trucks, Tennessee transportation officials said.
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