MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The governors of Tennessee and Arkansas met in Memphis as the first phase of repairs is set to begin on the I-40 bridge linking the two states at Memphis.
But while both agreed the bridge is critical, officials said Tuesday it could be several months before traffic might resume.
Governors Bill Lee and Asa Hutchinson were in Memphis on Tuesday to take a first-hand look at the damage to the Hernando Desoto Bridge and discuss infrastructure. The bridge, one of two major interstate routes over the Mississippi River at Memphis, was closed to traffic May 11 after a large crack was found in a steel beam.
“There’s not a more important issue that we’ve worked on in terms of the flow of commerce and the safety of our citizens,” said Hutchinson.
“We will work to repair this in the shortest time possible, but we will not compromise the safety of the workers, or the safety of the citizens that will drive across that bridge for the sake of finishing early,” Lee said.
On Monday, TDOT announced that the emergency bridge repair project was awarded to Kiewit Infrastructure Group.
TDOT said the contractor is expected to start work as early as Wednesday. The repair will be performed in two phases. Both phases will need to be completed before traffic can re-open on the bridge.
At this point, TDOT said they are unable to project a re-opening date.
Tennessee Department of Transportation Commissioner Clay Bright gave his best estimate Tuesday as to when the bridge could be back back open: “Several months, easily,” he said, emphasizing that the exact answer wasn’t known. He did not offer cost figures for the repairs.
Lee, in a statement released shortly before his meeting in Memphis with Hutchinson, called for immediate action from the federal government on infrastructure funding.
“We are making swift progress on repairs to the Hernando de Soto bridge to ensure safety and a return to uninterrupted commerce,” Lee said. “While Congress ponders the definition of infrastructure, we call upon the federal government to prioritize the safety of actual roads and bridges.”
But they don’t believe it will come from President Biden’s “American Rescue Plan.” The governors claim rescue plan funding wouldn’t be eligible to be spent on the I-40 bridge.
“Those dollars should come with the flexibility to spend on roads and bridges across the country,” Lee said.
Though the damage was not noted on recent inspection reports, ARDOT officials said last week they had evidence of the crack in a drone video from 2019.
ARDOT Director Lorie Tudor said Monday an investigation determined that the same employee who carried out inspections in 2019 and 2020 failed to notice that damage. That employee was terminated, and the matter was referred to federal authorities for possible criminal investigation, Tudor said.
All bridges inspected by that employee over the past year will be re-inspected.
Hutchinson said Tudor had shown incredible leadership in taking swift action to terminate that ARDOT inspector and take responsibility for the agency correcting the problem once an inspection discovered the damage.
“The process worked, even when there was a slip in that process … so that we didn’t have a catastrophic event here,” Lee said.
On Tuesday, TDOT drone teams began inspecting the I-55 bridge, which is currently carrying all traffic across the Mississippi River at Memphis, out of an abundance of caution to make sure it could handle the load, TDOT officials said.