Arkansas, Tennessee seek federal aid for I-55 bridge

The shrinking Mississippi River has broader “beaches” as drought continues to plague its basin. This photo was taken near the Bridgeport exit of Interstate 55 in West Memphis. (Special to The Commercial/University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture)
The shrinking Mississippi River has broader “beaches” as drought continues to plague its basin. This photo was taken near the Bridgeport exit of Interstate 55 in West Memphis. (Special to The Commercial/University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture)

Highway agencies in Arkansas and Tennessee applied last week for funding made available through the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law to replace the Interstate 55 bridge over the Mississippi River.

The federal grant sought by the two agencies would cover half the cost of a new $800 million bridge -- one fortified enough to hold up during a powerful earthquake and wide enough to better accommodate the tens of thousands of motorists who travel on it each day.

"I'm very hopeful that it gets approved," said Arkansas Transportation Department Director Lorie Tudor, who announced to the state Highway Commission during a meeting Tuesday that the application for a new I-55 bridge had been submitted about 24 hours earlier.

"It checks so many of the boxes," she said. "For starters, the [current] bridge is not seismically designed to handle an earthquake. There's also the amount of freight movement across the bridge. There are so many reasons why this is such a strong application."

If it isn't approved, both the Arkansas and Tennessee transportation departments, which co-wrote the grant application, will try again next year, Tudor said.

In September, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced the first-ever opportunity to apply for Large Bridge Program grants under the Bridge Investment Program, which was established under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act signed by President Joe Biden in November 2021.

Soon after the funding announcement, the Tennessee Department of Transportation reached out to its Arkansas counterpart seeking a partnership to "submit a joint grant application for a large-bridge project to replace the [I-55] bridge," Tudor said.

The I-55 bridge across the Mississippi River is a couple of miles south of the Interstate 40 bridge over the same river, which also connects northeast Arkansas to Memphis.

The I-40 bridge, known as the Hernando de Soto Bridge, gets 54,000 vehicles per day while the I-55 bridge averages 36,000 vehicles per day, according to the Arkansas Transportation Department.

The I-40 bridge was built in 1973 while the I-55 bridge was built in 1949. Not only is the I-40 bridge newer, it also has undergone a "seismic retrofit" to ensure that it can withstand an earthquake.

By comparison, the I-55 bridge cannot undergo a similar retrofit program because of the way it is designed, Tudor said. That is a major reason why an entirely new bridge needs to be constructed, she told commissioners.

In 1811 and 1812, Arkansas and its neighboring states to the northeast -- Missouri and Tennessee -- sustained the most powerful earthquake in the United States east of the Rocky Mountains in recorded history. It registered up to 8.2 on the Richter scale and was so powerful that it temporarily reversed the flow of the Mississippi River. Geologists have said that the area in and around the New Madrid Fault Line could experience a similarly sized earthquake, Tudor told commissioners.

Arkansas Highway Commission Chairman Alec Farmer, who is from northeast Arkansas, said during Tuesday's meeting that talks about an earthquake and what it could do to the I-55 bridge was "not a theoretical discussion" and that warnings should be taken seriously.

"We know what happens when one of those bridges closes down," he said.

In 2021, a fracture discovered on the I-40 bridge prompted officials to close it to traffic for about three months while emergency repairs were made.

Nichole Lawrence, a Tennessee Transportation Department spokeswoman, told the Democrat-Gazette on Friday that the application "is a strong candidate" for the federal large bridge grant.

The existing I-55 bridge has four lanes of traffic. According to the project overview that the Tennessee Transportation Department provided to the Democrat-Gazette, the new bridge would "add capacity to improve mobility, remove bottlenecks and address traffic flow," but it was not specific about whether new lanes would be added or how many.

If the grant application isn't approved, then the Tennessee and Arkansas transportation departments "will continue to look for opportunities for funding this future project," Lawrence said.

Tudor said both agencies will continue to seek to get the project approved "for as long as this program is available."

In other highway news, the U.S. Department of Transportation on Nov. 30 announced funding opportunities for the Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity, or RAISE, grant.

Tudor said she and her staff recommended the Interstate 49 project in Sebastian and Crawford counties and the future Interstate 57 project in northeast Arkansas as worthy candidates.

The commission voted unanimously to have Tudor and her staff apply for RAISE grants for both projects. The deadline is Feb. 28.

The I-49 project begins at Arkansas 22 and continues to I-40. The future I-57 project will construct a new interstate between Walnut Ridge and the Missouri state line.

Once that project is completed and once the Missouri Department of Transportation completes its final portion of the future I-57, there will be one complete interstate connection from Little Rock to Chicago, Tudor said.

Correction: A previous version of the story had incorrectly stated that I-55 was north I-40 when it is south of I-40.