The Interstate 40 bridge over the Mississippi River at Memphis is scheduled to start reopening Sunday night, just under 12 weeks after it was abruptly closed when a fracture affecting the integrity of the structure was discovered, according to Crittenden County's top executive.
The extent of the round-the-clock repairs -- which are approaching $4 million, according to the latest figures obtained under an open-records request -- will allow the eastbound lanes to reopen "Sunday night/Monday morning" and the westbound lanes "a few days later," County Judge Woody Wheeless said in a statement posted on his official Facebook account Tuesday evening.
Reopening even one eastbound lane would relieve some pressure on the only other nearby option to cross the river, the Memphis and Arkansas Bridge on Interstate 55. That bridge has just two lanes in each direction with no shoulders, leaving traffic backups into West Memphis eastbound when a vehicle is disabled or a crash happens on the bridge.
A news release was scheduled for this morning, Wheeless said, adding "I will keep you updated if something changes." He couldn't be immediately reached for additional comment.
Nichole Lawrence, a spokesman for the Tennessee Department of Transportation, declined to confirm the details Wheeless outlined but said in a text message Tuesday evening that the agency has "an opening plan for the I-40 bridge."
She did confirm an announcement was to be made this morning.
"Late this afternoon we started crafting our message," she said. "I will be sending out the press release with the plan midmorning tomorrow. There are several things that have to be checked and verified before notifying everyone."
Dave Parker, a spokesman for the Arkansas Department of Transportation, was more reticent.
"As we have done through this entire process, we are coordinating all communication with TDOT," he said Tuesday night. "Any updates or reopening announcements will be communicated jointly."
A midmorning announcement will come as the Arkansas Highway Commission is meeting in Little Rock. The five-member commission sets policy for the state Transportation Department.
Word of the reopening comes as the crews employed by the contractor, Kiewit Corp. of Omaha, Neb., performed the final drilling, bolting and torquing on 17 specially fabricated steel plates that have been installed to shore up additional weaknesses in the 48-year-old bridge. The weaknesses were detected through a detailed inspection after the bridge was closed. No additional cracks were found.
Once the plates are in place and other work complete, the bridge will be scheduled to undergo load tests, the results of which will factor into when the bridge reopens.
Meanwhile, the Tennessee Transportation Department disclosed that through at least July 21, the agency had spent $3,939,306.09 on the bridge repairs, according to records obtained by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
The records show the estimated total cost of the bridge repair at $4,475,790.
On Friday, Tennessee Transportation Department officials said the bridge work wouldn't be completed until "the first part of August."
Earlier estimates were a bit more optimistic. In June, transportation officials said the bridge repairs could take until the end of July or early August.
Built in 1973, the 3-mile-long Hernando de Soto Bridge between Memphis and West Memphis is part of a major freight corridor through the central U.S.
Since its closure, traffic has been routed to the 71-year-old Memphis and Arkansas Bridge, about 3 miles to the south on Interstate 55.
Work to repair the I-40 bridge is in its third and final phase. The third phase involves repairing weaknesses found after an in-depth inspection of the entire bridge involving about 500 weld connections.
All of the steel plates for the repair were fabricated by W&W/AFCO Steel at its facilities in Little Rock and Van Buren. Plates delivered last week weighed up to 5,000 pounds each.
The Tennessee Transportation Department oversees repairs of the shared bridge, while the Arkansas department is responsible for bridge inspections.
While the crack was discovered May 11, a photo from 2019, confirmed by transportation officials as being authentic, shows the crack has potentially been there for years.
Another photo appears to show a crack as far back as 2016, but the authenticity of that image remains under investigation.
The discovery led the Arkansas Department of Transportation to fire the inspection team leader for missing the crack during at least two previous inspections, which are conducted annually.
Information for this article was contributed by Bill Bowden and Eric Besson of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.