The first full day of the partial reopening of the Interstate 40 bridge over the Mississippi River in nearly three months appeared to go off without a hitch Sunday.
Traffic was permitted on the eastbound lanes of the Hernando de Soto bridge for the first time since May 11, starting at 10 p.m. Saturday, two days earlier than scheduled. That also could happen for the westbound lanes, which aren't scheduled to reopen until Friday.
"It was a relief," said Nick Coulter, a spokesman for the city of West Memphis, which has borne the brunt of the bridge shutdown because of immense traffic backups that left a high volume of heavy trucks on city streets.
In fact, on both Thursday and Friday traffic backed up for "miles" on Broadway, the main thoroughfare for the city of 26,000 through which a corridor carries traffic from both I Interstate 55 and I-40.
"We take almost a double hit," Coulter said, adding that reopening just the eastbound lanes "couldn't come soon enough" for West Memphis residents.
The I-40 bridge connecting West Memphis and Memphis was closed to all traffic May 11 after an inspection found a crack in one of its steel support beams.
Commuters and truckers alike welcomed the news of its partial reopening.
Nathan Hawkins, a Marianna police officer, was fortifying his sports utility vehicle with gasoline and himself with a large soft drink at a Valero convenience store and gas station just outside the West Memphis city limits for the drive home to Memphis after pulling a 12-hour shift.
He wasn't looking forward to it until he learned that the eastbound side of the bridge was open. Hawkins only knew the original Monday reopening.
The bridge closing has made a long day much longer for Hawkins and other commuters, stretching a commute from under an hour to three hours or more.
"It's been a long three months," Hawkins said.
Abai Sharshen, 29, of Sacramento, Calif., also was glad the eastbound side had reopened. He said he couldn't afford delays with his trailer full of packages for Amazon.com.
The Arkansas Trucking Association has estimated closing the bridge, which is part of a major freight corridor, has cost its industry $120 million.
Sharshen stopped at the Valero for a diesel refill for his 18-wheeler, which started the day in Dallas. He planned the route to include the I-40 bridge.
"I'm headed to Cincinnati," he said.
A trip over the eastbound side at midday Sunday found the wide three-lane almost boulevard-like and relatively bereft of traffic compared with the older, cramped two-lane Memphis and Arkansas Bridge, which carries vehicles on Interstate 55 across the Mississippi River about 3 miles south of the I-40 bridge.
Traffic moved on the I-55 bridge, but it was congested and lacking the shoulders of the I-40 bridge. The Hernando de Soto bridge opened in 1974. The I-55 bridge, by contrast, dates to the mid-1940s.
After three months, the difference in the quality of the drive was stark and likely will give commuters a new appreciation for what's known locally as the "new bridge."
"We all do," Coulter said.
The repairs to the bridge, which cost an estimated $9.5 million and were performed by crews from Kiewit Corp. of Omaha, Neb., came in three separate phases.
Kiewit was hired by the Tennessee Department of Transportation, which shares responsibilities with the Arkansas Department of Transportation. The Tennessee agency typically maintains the bridge while Arkansas is responsible for inspecting the bridge. The costs are evenly divided between the two agencies.
Kiewit was hired on May 17. By May 25, the contractor had stabilized the bridge to allow crews and equipment on the bridge to safely complete the full-scale repairs and complete more thorough inspections.
The full-scale repairs were completed July 6. Work began July 9 on the third phase, which involved the installation of 17 fabricated steel plates in areas where welds showed evidence of potential weakness. The plates, which weigh as much as 5,000 pounds each, were fabricated by W&W/AFCO Steel at its operations in Little Rock and Van Buren.
The areas in question were invisible to the naked eye and only discovered by ultrasonic testing of more than 500 welds, according to Arkansas agency officials. The testing found no new cracks.
The bridge reopening still leaves questions into how the crack went undiscovered for so long. At least three investigations remain ongoing.
So far, the crack -- which has been evident on the bridge since at least 2019 and possibly far longer -- has cost a senior bridge inspector for the Arkansas Department of Transportation his job. The agency's top executive, Lorie Tudor, said she hasn't ruled out other disciplinary action.
The internal department review remains ongoing as does a Federal Highway Administration review of the department's policies and procedures of its bridge inspection protocol. Tudor said a report will be available by next month.
The U.S. Department of Transportation's office of inspector general also is investigating. It has the power to bring criminal charges if they are deemed necessary.
Separately, Arkansas transportation officials have said the fractured steel box beam is being examined by a metallurgist to determine the cause of the fracture and how old the fracture is.
Neither work nor equipment was evident on the westbound lanes on Sunday, but the spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Transportation, Nichole Lawrence, said that doesn't mean those lanes are ready to reopen.
"Keep in mind that work has been taking place up top and below the deck," she said in a text Sunday afternoon. "There is also the traffic control that needs to be coordinated with ARDOT, Arkansas Highway Patrol, [Tennessee Highway Patrol] and [Memphis Police Department]. We are working with the contractor and our other partners.
"We'll keep you posted as we learn more."
CORRECTION: Nick Coulter is the communications director for the city of West Memphis. An earlier version of this story misstated his first name.