U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg visited Tennessee to find out how the closure of the Interstate 40 bridge connecting that state and Arkansas has affected freight movement. It was shut down more than three weeks ago due to a cracked beam in the span.
Buttigieg on Thursday met with regional transportation officials at a FedEx Corp. (NYSE: FDX) facility in Memphis before touring the Hernando De Soto bridge, also called the Mississippi River bridge. Shipping giant FedEx operates its massive fleet of airplanes and trucks out of its headquarters in Memphis, which has seen road traffic problems since the I-40 bridge spanning the Mississippi River was shut down. Vehicles have been rerouted to the nearby Interstate 55 bridge ever since.
The visit comes as President Joe Biden proposes a national $1.7 trillion infrastructure package, while Republican senators want a narrower investment in roads, highways and other traditional public works projects. The cracked bridge has served as a symbol of bridge decay in the U.S., which has 45,000 bridges in poor condition and faces a trillion-dollar backlog in repairs, according to federal transportation officials.
“Safety is at the heart of what’s happened at the De Soto bridge,” Buttigieg said during the discussion at FedEx. “I know that that protracted closure has been frustrating, it has been difficult, it has been challenging, and it has been costly.”
I-40 is a key artery for U.S. commerce, running from North Carolina to California. Manufacturers and shippers rely on the interstate to move products and materials across the river. When the 47-year-old, six-lane bridge is open, about 50,000 vehicles typically cross it each day, Tennessee transportation officials said. About a quarter of those vehicles are commercial trucks.
The I-40 bridge connecting Memphis to West Memphis, Arkansas, was shut down May 11 after Arkansas Department of Transportation (ARDOT) inspectors found a crack in one of two 900-foot horizontal steel beams that are critical for the bridge’s structural integrity. Inspectors studied the four-lane, 71-year-old I-55 bridge and determined it could withstand the increased traffic, according to Tennessee Commissioner of Transportation Clay Bright.
Memphis is a key U.S. infrastructure hub, featuring five major rail lines, an important inland river port and one of the world’s busiest cargo airports.
Cracked beam in I-40 Mississippi River bridge, May 2021. (Photo: ARDOT)
Officials have not set an official timetable for the reopening of the bridge, but Bright said he expects construction to last until at least late July.
Engineers have already installed steel plates on each side of the fractured beam. The second step of the project, which includes removing and replacing the damaged beam, is ongoing.
Truck drivers have endured delays on the I-55 bridge, or they have been forced to use two other non-interstate bridges that cross the river north and south of Memphis. The next nearest crossings are about 60 miles to the south near Lula, Mississippi, and 100 miles to the north near Dyersburg, Tennessee.
Attending the meeting at FedEx with Buttigieg were U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., and U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn. They heard from members of the trucking industry about problems caused by the shutdown.
The bridge closure has made trips longer and more expensive for truckers trying to get across the river. Trucking companies have changed work times for drivers, and drivers have been adjusting their travel routes, sometimes on the fly.
In addition, food warehouses are having trouble servicing restaurants in eastern Arkansas as supplies become delayed, according to an Associate Press report, citing Jason Higginbotham, chief financial officer of Ozark Motor Lines..
Higginbotham said his company was having trouble receiving timely diesel fuel deliveries.
Tennessee Trucking Association President Donna England said the bridge closure is making it more expensive for companies to operate during an ongoing truck driver shortage. Shannon Newton, president of the Arkansas Trucking Association, has estimated the closure is costing the trucking industry $2.4 million a day. Newton’s association members include 300 trucking and service companies.
“When that cost is added, then who does that cost get passed down to?” England said during the meeting. “It gets passed down to our consumers, as well as our shippers.”
“I’ve had members shift their work schedules to avoid daytime travel, and other members are taking their trucks out of route in order to avoid sitting in the congestion,” Newton stated.
In a letter to Biden days after the bridge’s closure, U.S. Sen. Bill Hagerty, R-Tenn., said the shutdown is “affecting the lives and livelihoods of real people right now.”
Arkansas’ two Republican senators, Tom Cotton and John Boozman, have said they’re concerned about the impact the bridge’s closure will have on the economy. The two have said they want an infrastructure package that is more narrowly focused on traditional public works projects like the bridge.
Buttigieg said the Biden administration and Republicans, including West Virginia Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, have been having “conversations in good faith” and there seems to be “an embrace of the principle that something on the order of $1 trillion around the transportation side of things was appropriate.”
The administration has set a Monday deadline to see signs of progress.
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