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Tennessee lawmaker frustrated by Buttigieg’s I-40 bridge response

Blackburn wants DOT secretary to visit site and assess situation

Crack on supporting frame of I-40 bridge. (Photo: ARDOT)

U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn believes the nation’s top transportation official is not paying enough attention to the I-40 bridge outage and wants better coordination on the issue between federal and state authorities.

The Tennessee Republican revealed her frustration during a Senate confirmation hearing on Thursday for Carlos Monje, nominated to be undersecretary of transportation for policy at the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) and currently serving as an adviser to DOT Secretary Pete Buttigieg.

“At this point we still do not have a response from Secretary Buttigieg as to whether he is going to go to Memphis, and when he is expecting to be on the ground to assess this situation,” Blackburn said. “When we spoke with the secretary on Friday, we were a bit frustrated that there was not a timeline for an assessment or to move to a mitigation plan.”

At the same time Blackburn was grilling Monje, however, Bill Hagerty — Tennessee’s other (also Republican) U.S. senator — was thanking Buttigieg for sending a team from DOT’s Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) to Memphis at Hagerty’s request. “The crisis has created tremendous traffic delays and is impacting commerce. Thank you for the effort and responsiveness to prioritize this for the department,” Hagerty told Buttigieg at a concurrent hearing.

DOT did not immediately respond as to whether Buttigieg would be going to the bridge, which spans the Mississippi River between Tennessee and Arkansas. The Tennessee Department of Transportation confirmed that state officials on Thursday briefed Acting FHWA Administrator Stephanie Pollack on the latest developments with the bridge and provided an overview of planned work. A contract was awarded on Monday to Kiewit Infrastructure Group to repair the bridge, but a reopening date has not yet been set.

Vehicles are being detoured to the Interstate 55 bridge three miles away, but that is creating major traffic delays approaching the I-55 bridge from either side.

Quality of over 600,000 U.S. bridges, 2012-2020. Source: Bureau of Transportation Statistics

DOT pointed out that Memphis is a “key crossroads for trucking,” with the I-40 bridge carrying freight between the East Coast and the Southwest and the I-55 bridge linking the Upper Midwest and the Gulf of Mexico region. Those freight flows are now mixing between the junction of I-40 and I-55 in Arkansas and the junction of I-55 and Interstate 69 in Tennessee, “costing tens of thousands of trucks and commuters each day delays greater than an hour,” DOT stated.

During his confirmation hearing, Monje also addressed the significant freight logjams at U.S. ports, particularly on the West Coast, which have been increasing costs for U.S. exporters.

“We need to work on our export strategy so that we have more goods flowing overseas,” Monje testified. “Right now it’s almost a one-way cycle, and it creates inefficiencies at every stage of the process.” He said he has been talking with stakeholders across the supply chain to “push for additional efficiencies,” including moving to a 24/7 schedule at West Coast port facilities as a way to keep up with increasing demand, a move recently suggested by Port of Long Beach Executive Director Mario Cordero.

“Over the long term and with the help of Congress, we want to identify funding so we can invest in intermodal facilities so we can get containers off of ships and onto trains and big rigs and deconflict them with traffic at the ports.”

Click for more FreightWaves articles by John Gallagher.

John Gallagher

Based in Washington, D.C., John specializes in regulation and legislation affecting all sectors of freight transportation. He has covered rail, trucking and maritime issues since 1993 for a variety of publications based in the U.S. and the U.K. John began business reporting in 1993 at Broadcasting & Cable Magazine. He graduated from Florida State University majoring in English and business.