A design team is looking at an interim repair for the crack on the Interstate 40 bridge in Memphis until a new part can be made to replace the bridge’s damaged section, the Tennessee Department of Transportation said Friday.
The team is working on a design concept that could use steel rods that would “span over the fractured section, and provide the needed strength to reopen the bridge to vehicular traffic,” TDOT said in a release.
An initial analysis of the bridge found it to be “stable,” and an independent firm was to take a second look on Friday, Tennessee’s Chief Engineer Paul Degges said earlier. Officials had said emergency repairs could take months and lead to delays in a major US shipping corridor.
The design team is also looking into whether a steel plate could “beef up the fractured section and thus increase our factor of safety for the existing configuration,” TDOT said.
“The interim repair would allow time for a new bridge component to be fabricated to replace the bridge’s damaged 37′ long section,” the release said.
The Mississippi River waterway under the bridge was reopened to traffic Friday. The Coast Guard said earlier that more than 60 vessels with over 1,000 barges had been held up on the river.
The first vessel with barges passed under the bridge just after 10 a.m. local time, according to MarineTraffic.com.
“Based on information provided to us by the Tennessee Department of Transportation, the Coast Guard has determined that transit under the I-40 bridge is safe for maritime traffic,” Coast Guard Capt. Ryan Rhodes of the Port of Memphis said in a statement.
“We appreciate the cooperative efforts of both the Tennessee and Arkansas Departments of Transportation, as well as maritime port partners, to ensure the safety of our waterway.”
Closure highlights nation’s crumbling infrastructure
The Hernando de Soto Bridge on Interstate 40 — a major artery for traffic crossing the Mississippi River between Memphis and eastern Arkansas — was shut down Tuesday for emergency repairs after transportation officials discovered the crack during a routine inspection.
The Coast Guard’s decision on reopening the passageway to barges was contingent on a final state DOT analysis.
The bridge closure highlights the nation’s crumbling infrastructure and President Joe Biden’s push for a $115 billion increase in spending to modernize bridges, highways, roads and main streets in need of repair.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg on Friday said the shutdown was “a huge disruption” to traffic both on the road and on the Mississippi River. He told The Washington Post an inspection “revealed a major crack that could have led to a catastrophic failure.”
“So we don’t have to use our imagination to understand why bridges are important and why they need to be in good repair,” Buttigieg said.
“We need first-rate infrastructure if we want to have a first-place economy,” he added. “This is a matter of economic competitiveness, as well as safety and wellbeing.”
The infrastructure plan, which must be approved by Congress, aims to fix the 10 most economically significant bridges in the country, as well as proposing repairs to 10,000 smaller bridges.
It’s possible the Hernando de Soto Bridge would be eligible for funding, but the White House’s plan lacks details on how the money would be disbursed. The administration has not identified which 10 bridges it deems most economically significant.
I-40 is a major transcontinental transportation route, Degges said. CNN affiliate WMC called the bridge a “vital piece of America’s infrastructure for moving traffic and freight around the country.”
According to the TDOT, the average daily traffic for the bridge is about 45,000 vehicles, with about 25% of that being truck traffic.
Drivers are being rerouted to Interstate 55, about 3 miles south, where another bridge spans the Mississippi River, causing major delays.
Degges sought to reassure the public about mounting concerns this week over the condition of the “old bridge” where I-40 traffic has been diverted, particularly the high volume of eighteen-wheelers.
“The wear and tear over that time would be infinitesimal,” Degges said.
“It will not measurably accelerate the deterioration of the bridge during the short duration” of heavier traffic, he added.
Tennessee shares responsibility for the bridge with the Arkansas Department of Transportation, which discovered the crack during a routine inspection and immediately shut down the bridge, the release said.
Degges described the crack as “very unusual.” He believes the crack was most likely caused by fatigue or a welding error when the bridge, designed in the 1960s, was originally constructed, but the state will conduct forensic analysis to discern the exact cause.
The bridge was opened in August 1973 with a price tag at that time of $57 million, WMC reported.
It’s unclear how long the crack has been there, but Degges believes it has probably been there for a couple weeks. He noted it was not present during a bridge inspection in September 2019.
Prices of corn and soybeans could rise
Soy Transportation Coalition Executive Director Mike Steenhoek told CNN the marine traffic shutdown was an “unwelcome” situation and, in the short term, prices of corn and soybeans could increase, especially south of Memphis.
If traffic along the river remained suspended, Steenhoek expected the industry to begin shifting to rail and to a lesser extent, trucks, to move product.
As for any grain stuck on barges, Steenhoek says there’s significant difficulty and expense in unloading and moving it to other types of transportation. “I expect the barges in the queue will wait — hoping traffic will resume in the near future,” he said.
The system has already been stressed by shifting buying and consumption habits, and a shutdown or delay can easily compound the challenges, he said.
At 48 years old, the Hernando de Soto Bridge is newer than the 72-year-old Memphis-Arkansas Bridge on I-55, where traffic is being diverted.