HELENA-WEST HELENA, Ark. — The inspector who missed a major crack in the I-40 bridge at Memphis had also looked at other Arkansas bridges, including another spanning the Mississippi River at Helena-West Helena.
While the mayor of Helena-West Helena has been told the bridge is safe, he says it’s past time for a new bridge.
“I think the concern is our bridge is older. It’s reportedly the only two lane bridge south of St. Louis on the Mississippi River,” Mayor Kevin Smith said.
Smith says he’s been in touch with state officials about the aging bridge’s safety and whether a fired bridge inspector could have also overlooked a problem here.
“I think most of the questions are, is it safe? The reports came out about the inspector that he was fired. That he was responsible for our bridge inspection as well as the one in Memphis that’s, of course, on top of everybody’s mind,” Smith said.
Smith says the Arkansas Department of Transportation assured him the Helena Bridge, which was last inspected in December 2020 is considered to be “very safe” even with the additional vehicle traffic using Highway 49 to avoid Memphis.
He says it’s past time to consider a new four lane bridge to replace this one, a proposal he presented a year ago, that is now being studied.
“Between the barges that hit the bridge, and the age of the bridge, the fact that it’s two lane, and yet we’re a major ‘relief valve’ for I-40. It’s all indication it’s time that we have a four-lane here,” Smith said.
Smith admits a new four lane bridge would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, but one driver says it would be worth the cost.
“I think about that every day. It would be nice to have a four lane bridge,” said Barbara Thomas.
She travels the bridge regularly while holding her breath through each trip.
“Because it’s narrow and you want to make sure everybody stays on their side,” Thomas said.
Mayor Smith says he doesn’t ever recall meeting Monty Frazier, the fired inspector, but says ARDOT will inspect the Helena Bridge again in mid-June.