MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Officials with the Tennessee Department of Transportation said in a news conference on Memphis on Wednesday that they do not know when the I-40 bridge will be opened after it was closed for emergency repairs Tuesday afternoon.
“We are not going to shoot from the hip here. We want the best fix, long-term, to get this bridge open again,” said TDOT Commissioner Clay Bright.
According to state authorities, Arkansas hired a team to take a look at the bridge as part of routine inspections every two years. The team on the ground saw a fracture Tuesday and immediately called 911 to have the bridge shut down.
The fracture is close to the middle of the steel “M” span, TDOT said. Three plates in a two-foot-wide steel beam had separated by a fraction of an inch and a fourth plate had a crack. The damage appeared to be fatigue-related, TDOT officials said.
Officially known as the Hernando DeSoto Bridge, the structure carries traffic on I-40 over the Mississippi River between Memphis, Tennessee and West Memphis, Arkansas. It opened in 1973 and carried about 37,000 vehicles a day in 2018, TDOT said. It was last inspected in 2019 and is inspected every two years, TDOT said.
Officials with TDOT said Wednesday they are in charge of maintenance and repairs, with the states of Arkansas and Tennessee splitting the costs for the repairs.
Right now they are in the process of analyzing whether or not it will be safe for their crews to go back out on bridge, for barge traffic to travel underneath it, and whether or not it will even hold its own weight.
“This is not common, the significance of this crack. We have cracks on bridges, we document them and they’re minor,” said Steve Frisbee, ARDOT Chief Engineer for Operations. “This one is pretty significant.”
When asked about when the bridge could be back open, officials couldn’t provide an estimate, saying it all depends on what they find during that analysis.
“Right now we don’t know the answer to those questions. Certainly, it’s plausible that this could be months rather than weeks,” said Paul Degges, TDOT Chief Engineer. “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.”
On WREG’s Live at 9 Wednesday, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland said he spoke with state leaders and TDOT Commissioner Clay Bright for about 45 minutes Tuesday evening. He was under the impression it would take months rather than weeks to get the needed repairs.
In addition, river traffic is also shut down until further notice, according to TDOT. At least 16 vessels with a total of 229 barges are parked up and down the Mississippi River after the Coast Guard placed a waterway restiction on the river Wednesday
“The Coast Guard is currently working with Arkansas Department of Transportation, Tennessee Department of Transportation and river industry stakeholders on this developing situation,” said Capt. Ryan Rhodes, captain of the Port of Memphis. “Based on the current information available, we have closed a portion of the Lower Mississippi River out of an abundance of caution. The captain of the port is monitoring the situation and will continue to ensure the safety of the maritime environment and surrounding community.”
In the meantime, Arkansas I-40 eastbound traffic should take Exit 5 to Interstate 55 to cross the Mississippi River into Memphis. Tennessee I-40 westbound traffic should take the I-55 Bridge across the Mississippi River to cross into Arkansas and then take Exit 4 to access I-40 westbound.
An inspection was completed on the I-55 bridge within the last year, TDOT said. Officials said the older bridge could sustain the extra traffic.
Degges said TDOT had done studies on adding a third bridge over the river in the Memphis area, but a project like that would likely cost in the range of $1.5 billion.