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I-40 Bridge Nightmare Nearing End, With Luck

4 min read

No official has given a hard date for when the six-lane Interstate 40 bridge across the Mississippi River will reopen for traffic, but it is beginning to look like the end of July is a good bet.

On July 2, the Arkansas Department of Transportation posted on its website page dedicated to the bridge that the goal was to reopen the bridge to traffic by the end of the month. On July 6, the department said the repairs to the initial fracture had been completed.

To recap, the bridge, officially the Hernando de Soto Bridge, was closed May 11 after a fracture was discovered in a steel support beam. The bridge connects West Memphis to Memphis and is a major crossing spot for thousands of vehicles.

Traffic has since been diverted to the four-lane I-55 bridge. The other two possible crossing points are bridges either 60 or 100 miles away.

When I spoke with Steve Frisbee, ArDOT’s assistant chief engineer of operations, about the bridge for an Executive Q&A in the July 5 issue of Arkansas Business, Frisbee said officials were reluctant to give a hard date for the bridge’s reopening because the transportation departments of both Tennessee and Arkansas wanted a chance to thoroughly inspect the bridge for any possible problem spots.

Officials wanted to avoid the scenario where a reopening date was announced but then postponed because of an unforeseen development. ArDOT said that nine spots were located that needed “additional steel plating.”

Frisbee did say that the structure crack was not directly related to infrastructure funding, or lack thereof, that the state tried to solve through legislation with a $300 million bill a couple of years ago. A bill pending in Congress would increase federal funding, but who knows what will happen in this political environment.

“We have not forfeited maintenance needs that were there all along,” Frisbee said. “We have done what we had to do. It is related to the big picture. It has long been known that our infrastructure funding has not been keeping up with the needs.

“If anything this [bridge closure] highlights that. It is a great reminder that our infrastructure is aging. And not just slightly aging. We are driving on 50-year-old structures, some older than that.”

One subject the bridge closure raised was the need for another bridge in the Memphis area. Frisbee and Michael Hill, the state’s heavy bridge maintenance engineer, said that is a question that doesn’t have a black-and-white answer.

Frisbee said a new bridge spanning the Mississippi would cost about $2 billion. Even with Tennessee and Arkansas splitting the state share of that, the bridge won’t be built without federal funding.

Also, Frisbee said the two bridges currently in use — well, as soon as the I-40 one reopens — are perfectly fine bridges. The caveat is that they are perfectly fine for their ages: The I-40 bridge opened in 1973 and the I-55 bridge opened in 1949.

It has long been known that our infrastructure funding has not been keeping up with the needs. If anything this [bridge closure] highlights that. It is a great reminder that our infrastructure is aging.”

Assistant Chief Engineer of Operations, ArDOT

Hill said building a bridge isn’t as simple as writing a check and showing up with equipment. A new bridge requires environmental studies and geographical and logistical planning, processes that can take years.

“If we are going to replace something, it’s not like just because we have the money we can go out there and buy a new bridge next week,” Hill said. “It is going to take some time to program the job, do environmental studies and get the bridge replaced. It takes time for that funding to get into the system to start making these changes.”

Frisbee said the two bridges are capable of handling the 80,000 or so vehicles that cross the river daily. He said there is no question that a bridge will eventually be needed to replace the I-55 bridge but it is not a pressing structural need.

“We’re seeing what it looks like when you put 75,000 vehicles on one bridge,” Frisbee said. “It’s not hurting the bridge; it is just the backlog and congestion that occurs for the travelers. The capacity is there currently. The traffic will flow. We don’t need a third bridge based on capacity, but some day the old bridge needs to be replaced.”

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