A logistical nightmare is unfolding along the lower Mississippi River following Tuesday’s discovery of a major (and terrifying-looking) structural crack in the steel beam of the Hernando de Soto Bridge. The nearly 50-year-old through-truss bridge carries Interstate 40 across the Mississippi between Memphis, Tennessee, and the city of West Memphis in northeastern Arkansas.
As of this writing, all vehicular traffic on the bridge, which normally carries an estimated 50,000 vehicles per day across the river, remains indefinitely halted. Barge traffic beneath the bridge also has been put on hold as the severity of the fracture discovered near the middle of the bridge’s “M” span is analyzed and physical inspections and repairs are carried out.
While the I-40 bridge serves as a major traffic artery between Tennessee and Arkansas, perhaps more disruptive is what’s happening below the bridge: the stoppage of grain barge movement along this particularly busy stretch of the Mississippi, which serves as a crucial logistical link in the shipping of crops in the export market. As Reuters reported yesterday, the backup route along the lower Mississippi has snared more than 400 barges, a figure that’s likely since grown higher. The United States Coast Guard, which controls the movement of vessels along the waterway, has closed off a half-mile south of the bridge and a half-mile north.
In a news conference held yesterday, officials with the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) were unable to offer a potential reopening timeline. Though, as noted by the Commercial Appeal, a decision regarding barge traffic will likely come before vehicular traffic on I-40.
“Right now we don’t know the answer to those questions. Certainly, it’s plausible that this could be months rather than weeks,” Paul Degges, TDOT’s Chief Engineer, told reporters. “We are hopeful that we can find a solution that would allow us to proceed with some traffic but right now we just don’t know.”
Transportation officials also stressed that the discovery of the fracture, believed to be fatigue-related, by private contractors dispatched by the Arkansas Department of Transportation (ARDOT) to carry out routine inspection work was an incredibly fortunate one. Despite the wide-ranging headaches happening that will likely continue on through the weeks—and potentially months—ahead, what could have potentially ensued if the crack had not been found would have been much, much worse.
“This fracture had the potential of becoming a catastrophic event that was prevented by our staff’s diligent effort in managing our bridge inspection program,” ARDOT Director Lorie Tudor said yesterday, explaining to reporters that the crack was “crucial to the structural integrity” of the aging and highly trafficked bridge.
“This is not common, the significance of this crack. We have cracks on bridges, we document them and they’re minor,” added Steve Frisbee, ARDOT’s chief engineer for operations. “This one is pretty significant.”
TDOT and ARDOT share responsibility for maintenance and repairs of the bridge.
Frantic calls between 911 dispatchers and members of the bridge inspection team that discovered the crack on Tuesday underscore Tudor’s comments regarding how a potentially catastrophic event was averted.
“I am doing a bridge inspection here on I-40 Mississippi River Bridge, and we just found a super critical finding that that needs traffic shut down in both directions on I-40 Mississippi River Bridge,” one inspector told somewhat puzzled 911 dispatchers in one of two audio recordings shared by Nashville-based ABC affiliate WKRN.
As noted by WKRN, only one other bridge in the Memphis area connects Tennessee and Arkansas and that bridge, which carries Interstate 55, is already highly congested. This has prompted regional emergency officials to devise contingency plans as to how Arkansas-based ambulances will reach Memphis, which is home to the main trauma units in the region. For now, Arkansans in extreme medical duress will likely be transported across the river by helicopter and, in the case of adverse weather, ferried across the Mississippi by boat before being transferred to a trauma center-bound ambulance on the Tennessee side.
According to the Commercial Appeal, precautionary inspections are now carried out at the I-55-carrying Memphis & Arkansas Bridge due to the sharp and sudden influx of traffic caused by the rerouting of traffic across the Mississippi. That bridge, located 2 miles southwest of the Hernando de Soto Bridge, is significantly older, having been completed in 1949. (The I-40 and I-55 bridges are often locally referred to as the “New” and “Old’ bridges, respectively.) Feasibility and location studies for a third Mississippi-spanning bridge that would link Memphis to Arkansas have been conducted by TDOT but an estimated $1.5 billion price tag has proven prohibitive.
As pointed out by NPR, Labor Secretary Marty Walsh and First Gentleman Doug Emhoff visited Memphis just last week stumping for the Biden administration’s multitrillion-dollar infrastructure bill. While the sweeping bill stresses an urgent need to repair and replace America’s deteriorating bridges and highways (and requests $115 billion to carry this out), Republican lawmakers have pushed back against the historically expansive bill, with many arguing that infrastructure spending should only be applied to transportation-related needs and not for housing, medical, or educational infrastructure, all of which play into the proposed bill.
AN will continue to track and share major developments in this unfolding story.