A vital bridge that connects Arkansas and Tennessee will likely remain closed for several months for repairs.
Crews discovered a fracture on the Interstate 40 Hernando de Soto Bridge — which stretches across the Mississippi River — during a routine inspection last week, according to transportation officials. The bridge was closed to waterway and vehicular traffic.
It reopened to river traffic Friday but remains closed to interstate traffic, and transportation officials have not provided a projected reopening date.
But Tennessee Commissioner of Transportation Clay Bright said during a news conference Tuesday that “it could be several months easily” before the bridge can reopen.
“As we move forward — day by day, week by week — as we get the information we want to share that with you,” Bright said. “But for me to speculate, several months is about all I can tell you right now.”
Officials have said repairs will be done in two phases.
The first will place two 30-foot plates on both sides of the fracture to allow crews to safely work on the bridge, the Arkansas Department of Transportation says. It should be completed by the end of next week.
The plates have been designed and Tennessee officials provided plans to Stupp Bridge Company in Bowling Green, Kentucky, for fabrication, the department says.
“Fabrication of the roughly 18,000 (pounds) of steel is expected to be complete by Wednesday, May 19,” The Tennessee Department of Transportation says. “TDOT forces will be picking up the fabricated plates from Stupp Bridge Company and transport them to Memphis, where they will be ready for the contractor.”
The second phase will involve removing and replacing the steel beam, which the DOT says will take several months. Traffic will not be allowed on the bridge until phase two is complete.
Arkansas officials said Monday that the second phase could involve “high-strength steel rods” to restore strength to the beam and then replace the section with the fracture but that plans are still being refined.
Tennessee DOT officials on Monday selected Kiewit Infrastructure Group to make the emergency repairs.
Officials originally said that the fracture was a result of wear and tear and that a 2020 inspection did not reveal “any structural deficiencies.”
But Arkansas Department of Transportation Director Lorie Tudor said during a news conference Monday that drone video from 2019 showed the fracture was visible then. The department determined the employee who inspected the bridge in 2019 and 2020 “failed to carry out his responsibilities correctly,” and he was fired Monday.
The bridge’s closure has sparked concerns from some experts about shipping and supply delays as the area is one of the heaviest freight corridors in the country.
“It’s a potential disaster,” John Gnuschke, a retired economist previously with the University of Memphis, told Fox 8 last week. “There is going to be a delay in goods and services across the country, and it’s all going to be because of this bridge.”
Bright said Tuesday the closure is going to affect commerce but that the department is communicating with other transportation authorities to “give them advance warning” so truckers can make arrangements.
“We’re working at all different levels ... just to make sure that traffic is flowing as best it can,” he said.