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I-40 bridge begins reopening Monday

Will be one of state’s safest, transportation director says by Noel Oman | July 29, 2021 at 7:59 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)

The Interstate 40 bridge over the Mississippi River at West Memphis will be among the safest bridges in Arkansas once it fully reopens next week, the top transportation official in the state said Wednesday.

The traveling public should be assured by the joint effort that went into repairing the Hernando de Soto bridge, including the nation's top bridge experts as well as engineers from the Arkansas and Tennessee transportation departments and the Federal Highway Administration, said Lorie Tudor, the Arkansas agency's director.

"This has been a collaborative team effort to make sure this bridge is as safe as possible and the right repairs were made, the right inspections were done," she said. "There's a lot of expertise that has gone into this and I think, again, when we publish the final report on what all happened and that assurances from those consulting firms, from TDOT, from ARDOT, from Federal Highway Administration, hopefully it will provide the confidence the public needs to know it's strong, it's safe and it's probably going to be the best bridge we have in the state when it's over and done with."

Both state transportation agencies formally announced on Wednesday the timing of the bridge reopening, which will begin early Monday when the eastbound lanes will be opened to traffic for the first time since the bridge was closed 12 weeks ago. The westbound lanes will reopen on Aug. 6.

The surprise discovery of a significant fracture in a beam on the bridge that threatened the integrity of the 48-year-old bridge on May 11 prompted its immediate closing. The shutdown forced more than 40,000 vehicles to other routes, including the smaller Memphis and Arkansas Bridge on Interstate 55, about 3 miles to the south of the I-40 bridge.

The bridge closing was particularly challenging for West Memphis, a city of 26,000, which saw its residents who worked in Memphis facing 90-minute commutes in the early going and saw city and residential streets buckle under the weight of heavy trucks when traffic backed up on the I-55 bridge and had no place else to go.

"There's a party going on in my office," West Memphis Mayor Marco McClendon joked Wednesday afternoon after the reopening announcement. "We are very excited."

Even as he spoke, a crash on the I-55 bridge underscored the predicament the I-40 bridge closing left for the mayor and others who depend on the bridge: Eastbound traffic was backed up all the way to the I-40/I-55 split because of the crash on the older bridge, which has only two lanes in each direction and no shoulders.

The bridge closing reverberated nationwide, as it is part of a major freight corridor through the nation's midsection.

"The closure of the Hernando De Soto Bridge from May 11 through Aug. 2 when it is expected to begin reopening, has cost the trucking industry more than $120 million," Shannon Newton, president of the Arkansas Trucking Association, said in an email. "Trucking will not be able to recoup that loss, but with so many other challenges facing the industry we are happy to put this one in the rear-view mirror."

Coincidentally, the formal announcement of the plan to reopen the bridge was made on the same day that a group of Republican senators announced they had reached an agreement with Democrats on major issues in a $1 trillion infrastructure package.

"This major disruption to the National Highway System only underscores the vital need for extensive updates and expansions to our crumbling infrastructure system," Newton said. "We are hopeful a robust federal infrastructure bill will help prevent similar economic disruptions in the future."

Reopening the bridge will initially be limited to eastbound lanes while the contractor wraps up its work, said Clay Bright, commissioner for the Tennessee Department of Transportation.

Barring any complications, he said the eastbound lanes will reopen by noon Monday. The westbound lanes will be reopened on Aug. 6, a Friday, with the precise time undetermined, Bright said.

Contractors will have completed all the phase three plating by Friday, according to his agency. They will begin to demobilize, break down platforms and remove equipment and barriers starting with the eastbound direction. They will do this one side at a time, as it is the safest scenario for the workers, the department said.

"We know having the bridge closed has been incredibly inconvenient," Bright said. "We appreciate the public's patience while our team made the repairs and performed extensive inspections to ensure it's structurally sound for many years to come."

The entire project is expected to cost $9.5 million, to be shared equally between the Tennessee and Arkansas transportation departments, Rex Vines, deputy director and chief engineer for the Arkansas agency, said in a briefing for members of the Arkansas Highway Commission.

The Arkansas share likely will come from its share of federal money set aside for bridge repair, according to Tudor.

Vines recounted the three distinct phases of repairs after Kiewit Corp. of Omaha, Neb., was hired by the Tennessee agency on May 17. By May 25, 14 days after the crack was discovered, the first phase of repairs to stabilize the bridge to allow full-scale repairs and inspections was completed, Vines said.

The full-scale repairs were completed July 6. Work began on July 9 on the third phase, which involved the installation of 17 fabricated steel plates in areas where welds showed evidence of potential weakness, he said. 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, Vines said.

Commissioner Alec Farmer of Jonesboro questioned Vines on that point, noting that some members of the public have the impression that additional cracks were discovered.

"Those weren't 17 other cracks?" Farmer asked.

"That's accurate," Vines responded. "They showed a variation in the color as they go across each weld. We're weren't sure how the beam would react [over] time so we added a plate just to supplement it as added strength."

Meanwhile, federal and state investigations into how the crack escaped notice will continue long after the bridge is reopened, according to Tudor.

The initial investigation led to the firing of one bridge inspection team leader after his team twice inspected the bridge without spotting the cracked beam.

Tudor declined to rule out more disciplinary action, noting that photographs have surfaced indicating the crack could be several years old and escaped detection on multiple inspections.

Those photographs have yet to be independently validated.

"The disciplinary action we've taken to date was based on hard evidence and now we're working to make sure there is no other disciplinary action that's needed and doing a very thorough investigation," she said. "It's still under investigation. No, it hasn't been decided yet if that's where it will end or if there will be additional disciplinary action."

The Federal Highway Administration is conducting a review of the bridge inspection section's policies and procedures, a review that is expected to be complete by September, Tudor said.

The U.S. Department of Transportation also is conducting an investigation.

An internal investigation by the department's maintenance division has gathered documentary evidence of past inspections and other information and turned it over for an audit by the agency's human resources personnel, Tudor said.

But the internal investigation won't get out ahead of the inspector general's investigation, she said.

And any changes to the bridge inspection policy and procedures won't happen until after the Federal Highway Administration review is completed, Tudor added.

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