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Next week aim for I-40 bridge startup schedule

Steel plating to be added at fracture by Neal Earley | May 30, 2021 at 4:00 a.m.
The I-40 Hernando de Soto Bridge crossing the Mississippi River connecting Arkansas and Tennessee on Tuesday, May 18, 2021. The bridge has been closed since inspectors found a fracture in the bridge. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)

WEST MEMPHIS — Transportation officials in Arkansas and Tennessee hope to release the schedule next week for reopening the Interstate 40 bridge over the Mississippi River.

Engineers from the adjoining states announced Thursday that they had decided how to fix the fractured bridge, electing to add steel plating around the cracked area. That fix, according to the Tennessee Department of Transportation, can be completed several weeks sooner than the alternative — replacing the entire 900-foot beam.

Officials from both states have been hesitant over the past two weeks to provide a concrete timeline for the span’s reopening, saying only that the bridge could be closed several months.

The reopening of the Hernando de Soto Bridge can’t come quickly enough for truckers, commuters and officials in West Memphis.

Since the bridge was shut down May 11, the aftereffects can be seen from the truck stops on I-40 to the Southland Casino and the streets of West Memphis.

The tens of thousands of semi-trucks that used to cruise through Arkansas every day on their way to Memphis have been brought to a near halt.

With all traffic diverted to the Arkansas-Memphis Bridge on I-55, a drive that used to take 10 to 15 minutes now can stretch to an hour or more during much of the day as more than 65,000 vehicles squeeze across the crossing each day.

For the city of West Memphis, with a population of about 24,400, the incident has become more than an inconvenience.

“I don’t know exactly what we can do, I know all the powers at be are doing everything they can to get this bridge back up and running,” said West Memphis Mayor Marco McClendon. “For us not only is it an inconvenience, but it hurts us.”

The I-40 bridge was closed after an inspector found a crack in a steel support beam during a routine inspection on May 11. What frustrated many were images from 2019 showing the crack had been in the bridge for years while inspectors failed to find it.

The Arkansas Department of Transportation later confirmed the images from 2019 were authentic and fired the inspection team leader who failed to find the crack on previous inspections. State engineers suspect that a bad weld caused the significant fracture.

The view from the wide-glass doors of the Arkansas Welcome Center on I-40 in West Memphis is of semi-trucks and white trailers slowly creeping their way toward the alternative bridge. An administrator said traffic at the West Memphis welcome center is down about 25% since the bridge closure.

Dependent on Memphis

In many ways, residents of West Memphis are dependent on Memphis. Many residents commute there for work, medical care or school. Before the I-40 bridge closure, one could drive or even walk from West Memphis into downtown Memphis in minutes.

Michelle Hatcher, who owns a cafe inside the Schneider trucking facility in West Memphis, said she travels across the bridge at least twice a week to pick up supplies. Her son also travels across the bridge everyone morning to commute to school, with some trips taking nearly two hours.

“We can’t get a definite answer as to how long it’s going to be or what they’re going to do, that type of thing,” Hatcher said.

Emily Scarbrough, executive director of the West Memphis Chamber of Commerce, said the bridge closure has people thinking about what the city lacks, like access to certain supplies and materials.

“You can get some restaurant supply at Walmart and places like that, but for the bulk that some of our restaurants need, you know, that’s been difficult,” Scarbrough said. “And business hasn’t really slowed down, so they’re needing those supplies more now than ever.”

Mike Chitty, a sheet metal worker from West Memphis, said he commutes over the bridge five times a week and the traffic cost him “time, gas, wear and tear on my vehicle, stress.”

For many in West Memphis, the concern is deeper than just traffic delays.

Hospitals once conveniently located minutes away across the Mississippi River in Memphis are now out of reach for parts of the day.

Ambulances, once bound for Memphis hospitals, are being diverted about 65 miles away to Jonesboro or about 40 miles away to Forrest City.

McClendon, the mayor, said for certain trauma patients a helicopter airlift from Baptist Memorial Hospital in West Memphis to a Memphis hospital can be arranged. But for most in need of care, traveling to a hospital on the highway is the only option.

“Can you imagine your loved one having a heart attack and you’re trying to get them to Jonesboro from West Memphis — that’s a 50-minute commute,” McClendon said.

The traffic congestion has caused more vehicle wrecks, which has increased traffic even more, McClendon said. The I-40 and I-55 bridges would see about a combined four traffic accidents a day before the closure; now, there are about 14 to 15 on the I-55 bridge alone, McClendon said.

The bridge closure has cost West Memphis $150,000 a month, McClendon estimated. Revenue at Southland Casino Racing, the city’s biggest draw, has been down since the closure of the I-40 bridge, the mayor said.

The city is also spending more on emergency services, having to pay police and firefighters overtime, McClendon said.

While West Memphis was a convenient trip for those who live in downtown Memphis, since the bridge’s closure that is no longer the case, though traffic in the westbound lanes from Tennessee into Arkansas is far less than the traffic going east into Tennessee. McClendon said he worries that those who live in Memphis will get used to traveling a bit farther to another casino or Walmart.

“I definitely think that the longer the bridge is closed the more it hurts us,” McClendon said.

The traffic from the interstate has compounding effects on congestion in the city. Parts of Broadway Boulevard, the main thoroughfare, is often filled with semi-trucks and commuters trying to merge onto I-55.

Cargo hub

The bridge closure has slowed the flow of goods into one of the largest logistics hubs in the world.

Memphis International Airport was the busiest cargo airport in the world in 2020, edging Hong Kong International Airport, according to Airports Council International. It’s also the corporate home to FedEx, one of the largest shipping and freight companies in the world.

Memphis is also the final destination for the countless number of semi-trucks that dominate the lanes eastbound on I-40 between Little Rock and the Mississippi River.

“We’re on a 14-hour clock. Once our 14 hours start that’s all we got,” said Clinton, a truck driver from Arkansas who declined to provide his last name. “And once it runs out what can we do, except sit in the middle of the road somewhere.”

Clinton, who said he crosses the bridge once a day, felt state inspectors should have found the crack sooner and politicians should be doing more to clear traffic in the area.

“There have been guys … missing loads and being late for loads and everything else,” Clinton said.

The closure of the I-40 bridge has cost the trucking industry $2.4 million a day, as the 26,500 semi-trucks that used to cross both bridges every day have converged to just one, according to the Arkansas Trucking Association.

Journeys from the I-40 and I-55 merger to Memphis that used to take eight minutes, now average 84 minutes, according to data from the Trucking Association.

“Freight is like water. It will continue to flow. Our industry will continue to make deliveries,” said Shannon Newton, president of the Arkansas Trucking Association, in a news release. “But if the additional expense is prolonged, it is likely to be passed on to consumers.”

The I-40 closure hasn’t created a headache for everyone.

Robert Stokes, a former crane operator who said he worked on the construction of the I-40 bridge when it was being built in the 1960s and 1970s, said he rarely crosses the river, only on occasion to visit his son.

“I do not like going to Memphis, so it has not posed a great inconvenience to me,” he said.

When asked if he had any insight on the bridge, Stokes laughed, saying “I’m not a mechanical engineer.”

A long line of semi-trucks inched east on I-40 just within view from the tobacco shop where Chitty, the sheet metal worker, stopped to chat with a friend on Wednesday. He kept coming back to his frustrations with other drivers, traffic and the inspector who missed the crack in the bridge.

“I just got off the interstate, so bear with me,” he said.

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