The trucking industry has been taking it on the chin ever since the Interstate 40 bridge over the Mississippi River closed six weeks ago. The Arkansas Department of Transportation (ARDOT) shut it down on May 11 after one of the agency’s inspectors found a cracked beam in the span.
Drivers needing to haul between eastern Arkansas and western Tennessee have been forced to take the Interstate 55 bridge. Though that bridge is just a few miles away, rerouting has had big ramifications, especially in terms of increased congestion and travel times.
In some instances, drivers have run out of hours and weren’t able to make it back to their terminals. The other nearest bridges are 70 to 90 miles away in either direction.
The abrupt change had carriers scrambling to make adjustments, such as increasing truck capacity to meet demand and disproportionately moving daytime drivers to nighttime shifts.
Shannon Newton, president of the Arkansas Trucking Association, told FreightWaves that travel times have improved on the I-55 bridge over the past few weeks because of measures taken by Arkansas and Tennessee state transportation officials. However, carriers are still struggling, especially haulers of fuel, asphalt and other products that are sourced and delivered regionally in the Mid-South. They typically have to load at one side, then deliver to multiple locations in the region, making it nearly impossible for them not to have to maneuver around the closure.
“Their routes require them to go over the bridge more than once a day,” Newton said. “They previously operated during daytime hours, working 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. They had to shift their work days, [working] from 2 p.m. to 2 a.m. to try to avoid the peak congestion times.”
One of those fuel carriers is Star Transportation LLC, based in Jonesboro in northeastern Arkansas. Vice President Al Heringer IV described the situation to FreightWaves as a “painful mess.”
Travel times for his drivers have been anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on time of day, and more than 90% of Star’s tankers have to use the I-55 alternate route. Heringer said the trip used to take his drivers five minutes tops on the I-40 bridge before it closed.
“We’ve shifted guys over and put them up in a hotel room to keep them from having to come back across the bridge,” Heringer explained. “So, we changed all their routes and have had to staff them differently.”
He’s constantly behind schedule but doing the best he can. Heringer said he’s talked to other carriers in the region that have been feeling the same pain. It’s hard for Heringer to put a dollar figure on how much the closure has cost his business up to this point
“I haven’t put a number on it because it doesn’t really matter,” Heringer added. “I’ve got to deal with it, period. It costs me time, which is money to me.”
He’s only been able to run about 200 loads out of Memphis on any given day, as opposed to the usual 300.
The closure of the I-40 bridge — known as the Hernando de Soto bridge — has made hauling in the region undesirable for drivers, who are already in short supply nationally.
“I’ve talked to several carriers who are having trouble getting drivers who are willing to take loads that take them in and around Memphis,” Newton added.
She said the closure initially was costing the trucking industry as a whole about $2.4 million a day, but had decreased to a little more than $1 million a day. This is still a high price to pay. The losses are calculated using operational truck cost data from the American Transportation Research Institute along with GPS data.
Newton said small package and less-than-truckload (LTL) carriers that are members of the Arkansas Trucking Association — those who have relays that run from Little Rock to Memphis or West Memphis, Arkansas, to Memphis as part of their hub networks — have also been highly impacted. Well before the bridge closure, these carriers built their distribution cycles and made promises to customers about delivery times based on how many runs they could make each shift. It’s been difficult to nearly impossible to keep these promises.
Some shippers have also been struggling, according to Newton. She got a call from a shipper in the construction business with eight loads a day coming out of Memphis. The shipper’s carrier partner became unable to meet demand.
“They called me because someone referred them to me,” Newton recalled. “They said, ‘We need to find a carrier to haul these loads for us. Can you send us your membership list of carriers who might be able to meet this need?’”
Newton added that shippers have been paying more due to longer transit times, as well as surcharges in cases when available drivers could be choosy about which loads they accept.
The sooner the bridge reopens, the better. But earlier this month, Tennessee Commissioner of Transportation Clay Bright said he expected the I-40 bridge repairs to last at least until late July. Neither he nor any other transportation officials had updated this timeline as of late Tuesday.
Heringer thinks the I-40 bridge issue is just a symptom of a much bigger problem. He hopes members of Congress can find common ground soon on infrastructure legislation.
“All of our bridges and roads are so important because there’s so much more out there on the road with e-commerce and everything,” Heringer said.
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