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’19 inspection spied damage on I-40 bridge

by Frank E. Lockwood, Noel Oman | May 15, 2021 at 8:30 p.m.
Workers from the Arkansas and Tennessee transportation departments inspect the cracked beam on the I-40 Mississippi River bridge between West Memphis and Memphis. (Special to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

Damage in the vicinity of the beam fracture discovered Tuesday on the Interstate 40 Mississippi River bridge at Memphis turned up in a May 2019 inspection, the Arkansas Department of Transportation acknowledged Friday.

An agency statement said it is investigating to see if a September 2019 inspection noted that damage and what, if any, actions were taken.

The department also said its top officials — director Lorie Tudor and Rex Vines, deputy director and chief engineer — will hold a briefing Monday that will include the results of that investigation, as well as provide an update on the bridge condition and perhaps a timeline for repairs.

The Tennessee Department of Transportation is reviewing proposals from potential contractors that could stabilize the bridge in the short term and possibly replace the damaged beam, Shannon Newton, the Arkansas Trucking Association president, said in an interview.

“They hope to select a contractor by Monday,” she said.

Newton said she is monitoring developments closely because of the immense impact that closing the bridge has had on her industry. Her agency’s calculations show that the closure has added $2.4 million in daily costs for trips crossing the river that once took as little as 8 minutes but now take, on average, 84 minutes, according to GPS data.

The Arkansas Department of Transportation previously said a September 2019 inspection detected no crack or fracture in one of the two 900-foot beams that support a bridge span deck. There are two spans and a total of four 900-foot beams on the part of the bridge that spans the river’s navigation channel.

Department officials said the fracture was discovered during a routine inspection Tuesday, prompting emergency closure of the span to traffic, a move that Tudor said prevented a catastrophe.

“The fact is, this bridge could have been another Minneapolis,” U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford said Friday.

The Jonesboro Republican was referring to the Interstate 35W bridge, which also crosses the Mississippi River. It collapsed without warning during rush-hour traffic Aug. 1, 2007. The disaster left 13 people dead and 145 hurt after dozens of vehicles plunged into the river.

“You know, 10 or 12 years ago we had that bridge collapse up in Minnesota, and it was catastrophic,” he said. “But for the ARDOT inspection, that could have happened, so I’m thankful that we had that inspection and they caught the defect, and they were able to take the appropriate action in shutting the bridge down.”

The bridge fracture also halted barge traffic on the Mississippi River, but a U.S. Coast Guard spokesman said the river reopened at 9 a.m. Friday. The halt, at one point, had caused a backup of nearly 40 vessels pushing 700 barges.

The decision to reopen the river came after investigations and modeling concluded that the fracture didn’t compromise the integrity of the bridge to the point that the span cannot support its own weight. The fractured beam is directly above the river channel that barges travel.

“I don’t think they would’ve allowed barge traffic to resume if they felt like there was some danger or a possibility the bridge was going to fail under its own weight,” Newton said.

The Arkansas Transportation Department statement issued Friday morning about the damage seen in a May 2019 video inspection didn’t describe the damage, and no image from that inspection was released.

“The Arkansas Department of Transportation (ARDOT) has confirmed that an image captured by an inspector’s drone video shows evidence of damage in the same area of the fracture which caused the Interstate 40 Bridge to be shut down earlier this week, according to agency officials,” the statement read.

“In May 2019, a video shows the evidence of the damage on the lower side of the bridge. ARDOT is now investigating to see if that damage was noted in a September 2019 inspection report and, if so, what actions were taken.”

The department’s top spokesman, Dave Parker, said Friday that the May 2019 inspection had a different focus than the more recent inspections.

“The video from the drone was captured as a team of inspectors were there to look at the bridge cables and upper portion,” he said in an email. “The camera happened to grab that image showing evidence of damage.”

The focus of the most recent inspections were the bridge deck and substructure, which is where the fracture is.

The agency likely will release an image from the May 2019 inspection Monday, Parker added.

Vehicular traffic over the Mississippi River at Memphis has been rerouted to the Interstate 55 bridge. Before the I-40 bridge was closed, both crossings carried a total of 80,000 vehicles a day.

The I-55 bridge opened in 1949 and is the older of the two spans. The I-40 bridge opened in 1973.

“We always refer to it as the new bridge,” Crawford said. “It was built in 1969 so it’s the new bridge because it’s newer than the other bridge on 55, but it’s really not very new.”

Crawford experienced the bridge-closure disruption firsthand Friday after flying to Memphis from Washington, D.C., and then continuing to Jonesboro by vehicle.

“Having just come over the 55 bridge, I can tell you that while the traffic was heavy going west, it was manageable,” he said Friday afternoon. “The problem is the traffic coming in from West Memphis.”

With traffic from I-40 now routed to I-55 there, it is “an absolute mess,” Crawford said. “The eastbound traffic, as I-40 there merges with 55, it’s a mess. It’s really got things tied up in the eastbound lanes in West Memphis.”

By well after 7 p.m. Friday, traffic was still congested and moving slowly in the eastbound lanes of the corridor from the split in West Memphis, according to online maps depicting travel conditions.

Crawford and other members of the Arkansas and Tennessee congressional delegations met with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. Other members of the Arkansas delegation participating in the meeting included U.S. Sens. John Boozman and Tom Cotton, both Republicans.

“We had a good visit with Secretary Buttigieg [and] made him very aware of the situation,” Crawford said. “He seems very amenable and understanding of what we’re up against and has, I thought, responded very quickly. … And I think we’re going to get plenty of help.”

Resumption of barge traffic came after a meeting of members of the U.S. Coast Guard and the Tennessee Department of Transportation and other stakeholders in which it was determined “that it was safe for vessels to come underneath the bridge,” said Chief Petty Officer 3rd Class Carlos Galarza, a Coast Guard spokesman in New Orleans.

“Right now the traffic is open as it would normally be, and [we’re] trying to get all those queued and out as quickly as possible,” he said.

The importance of the decision to resume normal operations on the river cannot be overstated, Crawford said.

“You’re talking about billions of dollars of commodities that move up and down the river,” he said. “And it’s really an important superhighway of commerce that we don’t think about as much as we should.”

Crawford said the bridge is a critical piece of infrastructure that underscores the importance of the debate over a new infrastructure spending bill in Congress.

“We’ve been talking about the necessity of investing in improving our existing infrastructure, and expanding and building new infrastructure to meet the needs of our growing economy,” he said. “This is an example. This is certainly a safety issue, but we’re also seeing how important it is to the free flow of traffic.

“A lot of that traffic, in fact probably half of it, is commercial traffic with regards to the trucking industry, so it’s really, really important from an economic standpoint as well.”

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