Repairs to the Interstate 40 bridge linking Arkansas and Tennessee could take months after a crack was found in the span, forcing thousands of trucks and cars to detour and shutting down shipping on a section of the Mississippi River, a transportation official said Wednesday.
A congressional Democrat from Tennessee flagged the crack as a warning sign of the urgent need to act on fixes to the nation’s infrastructure.
The six-lane bridge into Memphis was shut down Tuesday afternoon after inspectors found a “significant fracture” in one of two 900-foot (274-meter) horizontal steel beams that are crucial for the bridge’s integrity, said Lorie Tudor, director of the Arkansas Department of Transportation.
Both states’ transportation agencies said they would make sure the 48-year-old, 1.8-mile (2.9-kilometer) bridge is safe before reopening.
“This fracture had the potential of becoming a catastrophic event that was prevented by our staff’s diligent effort in managing our bridge inspection program,” Tudor said.
Traffic was being rerouted to Interstate 55 and the 71-year-old Memphis & Arkansas Bridge, about 3 miles (4.8 kilometers) south.
River traffic was also shut down in the Memphis area until further notice, the Tennessee Department of Transportation said. The U.S. Coast Guard said 16 tow boats hauling more than 220 barges were waiting in line Wednesday.
The closure is creating traffic congestion in Memphis and in neighboring West Memphis, Arkansas. DeWayne Rose, West Memphis’ emergency manager, said officials there are using contingency plans to get trauma patients to facilities in Memphis or to other nearby hospitals.
“People around this area are used to lane closures, they’re used to construction, they’re used to shutdowns, and I think everyone is just a little on edge because of the uncertainty of the time frame of this,” Rose said.
Road crews were poised to remove any cars that crash or otherwise become stuck on the four-lane I-55 bridge. The next nearest Mississippi River crossings are about 60 miles (96 kilometers) to the south near Lula, Mississippi, and 100 miles (160 kilometers) to the north near Dyersburg, Tennessee.
An inspection team was working to determine if the I-40 bridge could hold its own weight and the weight of construction crews, said Paul Degges, chief engineer for the Tennessee transportation department. Barge traffic will not resume until engineers decide that the bridge can stand on its own, he said.
The process of determining those factors could take days, and the repairs could last much longer, Degges said. Arkansas is in charge of inspections, while Tennessee handles maintenance and repairs, officials said.
“Certainly, its plausible that this could be months rather than weeks,” Degges said during a news conference. “We are hopeful that we can find a solution that would allow us to proceed with some opening of traffic, but right now we just don’t know.”
Engineers were also trying to find out the cause of the crack. The fatigue of having tens of thousands of vehicles pass daily over the bridge could be a contributing factor, Degges said.
“It’s fortunate that routine inspection averted a potential disaster, but the state of our crumbling infrastructure is deeply troubling,” said U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, a Democrat whose district includes Memphis.
Cohen said he would work in a bipartisan manner with the congressional delegations from Arkansas and Tennessee to make sure I-40 bridge improvements are included in President Joe Biden’s infrastructure proposals.
In an inspection for the 2020 National Bridge Inventory report, the Federal Highway Administration said the I-40 bridge checked out in fair condition overall, with all primary structure elements sound and only some minor cracks and chips in the overall structure. Its structural evaluation checked out “somewhat better than minimum adequacy to tolerate being left in place as is.”
However, height and width clearances for oversize vehicles were “basically intolerable requiring high priority of corrective action,” the inspectors found. Tennessee recommended “bridge deck replacement with only incidental widening.”
Arkansas transportation officials said the crack did not appear in the last inspection of the bridge, which occurred in September 2020.
The I-40 bridge, which opened in 1973, carried a 2020 average of 35,000 vehicles a day across the river, 29 percent of them trucks, according to the report. Degges said the average is closer to 50,000 vehicles a day, with about a quarter being trucks. Its traffic volume was expected to increase to 56,000 vehicles a day by 2040, the report said.
The span also has undergone about $280 million worth of retrofitting for the possibility of an earthquake.
(By Adrian Sainz, Jill Bleed and Andrew DeMillo, with Bleed and DeMillo reporting from Little Rock, Arkansas.)