Shuttered Memphis bridge to reopen months after fracture was discovered in steel beam

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A major Memphis bridge that closed in May because of a steel beam fracture will start reopening next week.

The Interstate 40 Hernando de Soto bridge — which runs over the Mississippi River and connects Tennessee and Arkansas — was closed to interstate and waterway traffic May 11 after a crack in one of its steel beams was discovered during a routine inspection.

It reopened to waterway traffic shortly after but has remained closed to interstate traffic — sparking concerns about shipping delays as the area is one of the heaviest freight corridors in the country.

“If you compare it to a body, this looks like the arteries and this is the heart of the country,” Adel Abdelnaby, a civil engineering professor at the University of Memphis, told Local Memphis in May. “So if you cut the heart of the country, it’s like you are giving the country a heart attack by shutting down the I-40 bridge — because that is what connects the east and the west to the rest of the U.S.”

Reopening the bridge

Transportation officials say they will start reopening the bridge to “limited traffic” as repairs are finished.

By 6 a.m. Central time Monday, all I-40 eastbound lanes will be open, the Arkansas Department of Transportation says. The westbound lanes will reopen Aug. 6 at a time to be announced.

The Arkansas DOT says the schedule is “barring any complications.”

The Tennessee Department of Transportation, which shares responsibility for the bridge with the Arkansas DOT, says the final phase of repairs will be completed by Friday and that workers will start to demobilize, break down platforms, and remove their equipment and barriers starting in the eastbound lanes.

But officials say the “bridge remains an active work zone” and ask drivers to pay attention to traffic information.

Transportation officials estimated in May that repairs on the bridge could take months.

The first phase of repairs involved installing two 30-foot steel plates on both sides of the fracture to stabilize the bridge and allow crews to work on it. The second phase involved removing and replacing the steel beam using “high-strength steel rods” to restore strength to the beam and then replace the section with the fracture.

“We know having the bridge closed has been incredibly inconvenient,” Tennessee DOT Commissioner Clay Bright said Wednesday in a news release. “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.”

About the closure

Transportation officials originally said the fracture was a result of wear and tear and that a 2020 inspection of the bridge didn’t reveal “any structural deficiencies.”

But officials later said they found evidence of earlier damage to the bridge.

A photo from a drone video showed the fracture could be seen in 2019 — and that the Arkansas DOT determined the employee who inspected the bridge in 2019 and 2020 “failed to carry out his responsibilities correctly.” The employee was terminated, officials said.

“He didn’t see it,” Arkansas DOT Director Lorie Tudor said of the worker in a May news conference. “But the reason he didn’t see it is because he wasn’t following proper protocol. The way we’re supposed to inspect a bridge is you literally go inch by inch along that beam and physically inspect every inch of the beam. That did not happen.”

Tudor said the fracture grew between 2019 and 2021 because of weather and “stress and strain” on the bridge.

The Federal Highway Administration, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s inspector general and the Arkansas DOT are still investigating the fracture, the Associated Press reports.

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