Calling Memphis an area of “national logistical importance," U.S. Transportation Sec. Pete Buttigieg said it was important to quickly reestablish the “connection” fostered by the I-40 Bridge over the Mississippi River. Pictured (l-r): TDOT Commissioner Clay Bright, Mayor Jim Strickland, Rep. Steve Cohen, Buttigieg, West Memphis Mayor Marco McClendon and Arkansas Highway Commission Chairman Robert Moore. (Photo: Gary S. Whitlow/GSW Enterprises)

“Put simply, the reason I am here is to emphasize that the situation with the bridge may be a regional issue, but it is a national concern,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who spent much of last Thursday (June 4) in Memphis.

“We want to make sure that national attention and resources are available to help state and local authorities who are … working toward a safe reopening.”

Invited to Memphis by Tennessee’s Ninth District Congressman Steve Cohen, Buttigieg’s multi-stop visit, which included talks with officials in Tennessee and Arkansas, was anchored by an afternoon tour of the bridge and a media briefing.

Bridge, transportation concerns aired during Memphis roundtable with Transportation Sec. Buttigieg

The I-40 bridge was shut down on May 11 after inspectors found a crack in one of two 900-ft., horizontal steel beams, which jeopardized the bridge’s safety and integrity.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg (left) with TDOT Commissioner Clay Bright during a review of repairs underway of the I-40 Bridge over the Mississippi River. (Photo: TDOT)

Noting that businesses depend on customers and employees to get across the bridge, Buttigieg said it was important to quickly reestablish the “connection” up and running again. The “Memphis region,” he said, is an area of “national logistical importance.”

With President Biden pushing for a major infrastructure package, Buttigieg’s visit created a high-profile stage to address Memphis-area infrastructure needs.

Mayor Jim Strickland during remarks he shared at the press conference featuring U.S. Transportation Sec. Pete Buttigieg. (Photo: Gary S. Whitlow/GSW Enterprises)

Mayor Jim Strickland made brief marks during the afternoon press conference that included West Memphis Mayor West Memphis Mayor Marco McClendon, along with Cohen, Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) Commissioner Clay Bright and Robert Moore, chairman of the Arkansas Highway Commission.

“In Memphis alone, we have identified nearly $20 Billion in current infrastructure needs – and the list grows each year,” Strickland said later in his weekly administration update.

“Some items on that list include: roadway and street improvements, bridge repairs and maintenance, stormwater/flood mitigation, updating solid waste facilities, sewer system upgrades, Memphis Area Transit Authority upgrades, broadband connectivity, upgrading to smart grids, and improvements at the Memphis International Airport.”

For all those reasons and more, he said, “I firmly believe the bipartisan passage of an infrastructure bill, such as the American Jobs Plan, has never been more important.”

Repairs on the I-40 bridge have moved into a second phase, with permanent repairs projected to go through July.

West Memphis Mayor Marco McClendon looked ahead to the reopening of the I-40, linking the bridge to the quality of life in the Arkansas city. (Photo: Gary S. Whitlow/GSW Enterprises)

“West Memphis is the home of America’s crossroads,” said McClendon. “We hold I-40 and I-55. Over 60,000 vehicles travel through the city of West Memphis every day. And can you all imagine when one bridge is down, we have to divert all of that traffic to one bridge, that only is used to holding  20,000 vehicles?

“That has paralyzed our city,” he said, “but I’m encouraged after speaking with the secretary that we can do some things to get things done quickly. … “This bridge being down behind us is true evidence that an infrastructure plan must be done in Washington to help people in the United States, especially those in Memphis and West Memphis.”

Bright shared – through TDOT social media – that, “We are working 24/7 to get it repaired and reopened.”

At the press conference, Cohen said Buttigieg “knows the history of the railroads and the river and the runways – the roads and rails – and that’s Memphis. We had a good opportunity to talk – some situations in Memphis we need to improve with jobs and transportation, because transportation means jobs. So we’re fortunate that he’s here today.”

Rep. Steve Cohen: “It’s kind of a shame that Memphis has to be the poster child for infrastructure failure. But because of that, we’ve given a whistle – a canary in the coal mine – to the rest of the country about what they need to look out for in the way of infrastructure and deficiencies and possible problems, and why this (infrastructure) bill is so important to protect American citizens as well as American commerce.” (Photo: Gary S. Whitlow/GSW Enterprises)

The prospect of a third bridge across the Mississippi River was raised as a possible solution to meet future demands with heavier traffic in the future. Buttigieg said that decision is a local matter for local officials.

(This story reflects a report by TSD’s freelance contributor, Dr. Sybil C. Mitchell.)

GALLERY: Bridge under repair (June 4, 2021)