Commercial vehicle operators are accustomed to the occasional delay due to traffic, and trucking companies are typically prepared to handle intermittent delays due to road closures. However, when the Hernando de Soto bridge on Interstate 40, a key link across the Mississippi River at the Arkansas and Tennessee state line, was suddenly closed to traffic on May 11, this critical passage into Memphis, Tennessee, became a national concern.
The I-40 bridge connecting Memphis and the Arkansas city of West Memphis was shut down immediately after inspectors found a fracture in one of two 900-foot horizontal steel beams that are critical for the bridge’s structural integrity.
Since traffic has been rerouted to the nearby I-55 bridge in Memphis, commercial truck drivers have endured heavy delays on the I-55 bridge, or they have been forced to use two other bridges that cross the river to the north and south of Memphis. The next closest crossings are about 60 miles to the south near Lula, Mississippi, and 100 miles to the north near Dyersburg, Tennessee.
I-40 is a key artery for U.S. commerce, running from North Carolina to California, and Memphis is a key national infrastructure hub, featuring five major rail lines, an inland river port, and one of the world’s busiest cargo airports. When the 48-year-old, six-lane I-40 bridge is open, about 50,000 vehicles travel across it daily, with about a quarter of those being commercial trucks, Tennessee transportation officials have said.
The Arkansas Department of Transportation (ARDOT) on 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 fracture that was discovered in May of this year. Shortly thereafter, the ARDOT inspector in charge of the 2019 inspection was terminated from his position with the department.
Engineers have already completed Phase 1 of the repairs, which involved installing steel plates on each side of the fractured beam. Phase 2 of the project, which includes removing and replacing the damaged piece of the beam, remains ongoing.
Following the closure of the I-40 bridge, inspectors studied the four-lane, 71-year-old I-55 bridge and determined it can withstand the increased traffic caused by the closure of the I-40 bridge, said Tennessee Transportation Commissioner Clay Bright.
A timetable for the I-40 bridge’s reopening has not been officially set, but Bright said construction is expected to run at least into late July.
The bridge closure has made trips longer and more expensive for commercial truck drivers seeking to get across the river on the three open regional bridges. Trucking companies have changed work times for drivers, while truckers are adjusting their travel routes, often on the fly.
As a result of the delays, food warehouses are having trouble servicing restaurants in eastern Arkansas, said Ozark Motor Lines’ Chief Financial Officer Jason Higginbotham. He also shared that his company was having trouble receiving timely diesel fuel deliveries.
Tennessee Trucking Association President Donna England said the bridge closure is making it more expensive for companies to operate during an ongoing truck driver shortage. The Arkansas Trucking Association has estimated the closure is costing the industry about $2 million a day.
“When that cost is added, then who does that cost get passed down to?” said England. “It gets passed down to our consumers, as well as our shippers.”
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.
In an inspection for the 2020 National Bridge Inventory report, the Federal Highway Administration (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 was determined to be “somewhat better than minimum adequacy to tolerate being left in place as is.”
U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg traveled to Tennessee on June 3 to learn how the closure has affected freight movement since it was shut down.
Buttigieg met with regional transportation officials at a FedEx Corp. facility in Memphis before a tour of the Hernando de Soto bridge. Shipping giant FedEx operates its massive fleet of airplanes and trucks out of its headquarters in Memphis.
Buttigieg’s visit came as negotiations continued between President Joe Biden, House and Senate Democrats, and the GOP to finalize a national infrastructure package. Biden had proposed a broad $1.7 trillion infrastructure package, while Republican members of Congress want a narrower investment in roads, highways, and other traditional public works projects. The cracked bridge serves as a symbol of bridge decay in the U.S., which federal transportation officials have said has 45,000 bridges in poor condition and faces a trillion-dollar backlog in repairs.
Officials note that making the I-40 bridge safe for traffic should be the main goal, with maintaining the flow of interstate commerce and commuter traffic as other priorities.
“Safety is at the heart of what’s happened at the de Soto bridge,” Buttigieg stressed during the discussion at FedEx. “I know that the protracted closure has been frustrating, it has been difficult, it has been challenging, and it has been costly.”
Attending the meeting with Buttigieg at FedEx were U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) and U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN-9). They heard from members of the trucking industry about problems caused by the shutdown.
In a letter to Biden days after the bridge’s closure, Republican U.S. Sen. Bill Hagerty of Tennessee said the shutdown is “affecting the lives and livelihoods of real people right now.”
Arkansas’ two Republican senators, Tom Cotton and John Boozman, have said they’re concerned about the impact the bridge’s closure will have on the economy and have indicated they want an infrastructure package that’s focused on traditional public works projects, such as the Hernando de Soto bridge.