U.S. Transportation Sec. Pete Buttigieg made a Memphis visit on Thursday. Meanwhile, inspection was underway of the upper trusses of the closed I-40-Hernando De Soto Bridge over the Mississippi River. (Photo of bridge repair: Tennessee Department of Transportation)

Acknowledging Memphis as “vital” to the nation and the world’s transportation, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg mixed with business and political leaders during a 45-minute roundtable at the FedEx Experience Center on Thursday.

Buttigieg’s participation in the roundtable discussion came as repair work continues on the closed Interstate 40-Hernando DeSoto Bridge over the Mississippi River. The itinerary for his Memphis visit was set to include an afternoon tour of the bridge and talks with officials in Tennessee and Arkansas.

Buttigieg noted the bipartisan nature of the roundtable and the presence of Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tennessee) and Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee). He said the repairs to the bridge were proceeding without regard to politics, “which is a reminder that such things are still possible, especially when it comes to infrastructure.”

The I-40 bridge connecting Memphis and West Memphis (Arkansas) was shut down May 11 after inspectors found a crack in one of two 900-foot (275-meter) horizontal steel beams that are critical for the bridge’s structural integrity.

Officials have said the bridge could be closed for months. The first phase of repairs to the bridge were completed last week. On Wednesday, the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) said the contractor is preparing pricing for work and fabrication of materials needed for the phase two permanent repairs.

Bringing Memphis’ status as “America’s distribution center,” into the discussion, Cohen pushed for the passage of an infrastructure bill.

“What’s happening in Memphis right now is a microcosm of the country. …The American people can’t wait any longer,” said Cohen, whose 9th District includes almost all of Shelby County.

Cohen advocated for another Memphis bridge that would span the Mississippi River, an idea that has been picking up steam recently.

“…A lot of people would like to have three bridges. Four would be great. Three would be fine…,” Cohen said.

Blackburn pushed for a timeline to repair and reopen the bridge. The Tennessee Department of Transportation has said one would come this week.

“What we need to have is a timeline and framework of a timeline for a mitigation plan to be carried out,” said Blackburn, noting that Interstate 40 connects North Carolina to California.

Bridge hurting industry

Trucking industry officials at the roundtable pointed to the delays the bridge’s closure is causing and said that it would be passed on to consumers.

“They’re adding cost,” said Donna England of the Tennessee Transportation Association, as she advocated for funding to repair bridges.

“Our infrastructure is aging. … They’re old and they’re gonna need work. If we don’t put money towards them, are we going to have this happen in other states?”

Jason Blair Higginbotham of Ozark Motor Lines said some drivers don’t take jobs that would involve crossing the river because of the delays.

“It has exacerbated the driver shortage because of the loss of productivity,” Higginbotham said.

Shannon Newton of the Arkansas Trucking Association said the delays caused by closure have forced truck drivers to change how they work, hurting their quality of life.

“What used to be a 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. has switched to 2 a.m. to 2 p.m. shift,” said Newton, who also noted that the de Soto closure has increased traffic on the bridge’s north and south of Memphis – the I-49 Bridge between Mississippi and Arkansas and the I-155 crossing in Southwest Missouri.

“Is there more we can be doing?” Stephanie Pollack, the acting administrator for the Federal Highway Administration, who moderated the panel, asked the roundtable. The highway administration is a division of the transportation department.

Higginbotham and Newton asked for the easing of some federal regulations for the immediate Memphis area and if any federal funds would be available to expand Interstate 55 capacity in the short term.

Lessons learned

Stressing the need for dedicated federal funding for bridge maintenance and the importance of the federal government’s role government to coordinate the multiple government agencies tasked with the response, Blackburn said, “It’s important that the federal government respond promptly.”

Cohen told Buttigieg, “We’ve got to have some redundancies in our checks in maintenance.”

Pollack added, “The resiliency redundancy issue is a very important issue.”

Higginbotham said the federal government could better coordinate trucking detours on a national level rather than truckers interfacing with 50 different departments of transportation.

Newton added this: “We should be expecting to invest in the infrastructure we built decades and decades ago. … We are going to have to support the system. … Our industry has long supported a fuel tax increase as the most fair and equitable way to do that.”

Buttigieg said investing in infrastructure is a means of the U.S. remaining the leading economy in the world.

He noted the economic disruption caused by the bridge’s closure.

“We’re going to be here with you every step of the way,” Buttigieg said.

Buttigieg’s visit coincides with President Biden’s push for a major infrastructure package, while Republican senators want a more modest investment in roads, highways and other traditional public works projects.

FedEx COO Raj Subramaniam said he was encouraged to see bipartisan momentum for infrastructure in Washington. He asked for the government to incentivize electric commercial transportation and modernize the electric grid. He also advocated for commercial charging stations for electric transportation.

At the outset, Buttigieg addressed the deadly shooting at a FedEx facility in Indiana earlier this year and commended the company’s response to the shooting.

(This story was drawn from a pool report made available with Transportation Sec. Pete Buttigieg’s Memphis visit.)