I-40 bridge closure in Arkansas may cost trucking industry $2.4M a day

May 17, 2021

Tyson Fisher

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More information is surfacing about the Hernando de Soto Bridge on Interstate 40 between Arkansas and Tennessee, including how long the bridge has been damaged and how much the closure is estimated to be costing the trucking industry.

The Hernando de Soto Bridge was shut down on May 11 after crews found a crack during a routine inspection. It is unknown at this point when it will reopen. In the meantime, motorists traveling on I-40 eastbound in Arkansas are to take Exit 5 to Interstate 55 to cross the Mississippi River into Memphis. Those traveling westbound on the Tennessee side of I-40 should take the Interstate 55 bridge across the Mississippi River to get into Arkansas. From there, take Exit 4 to access I-40 westbound.

Hernando de Soto Bridge closure’s impact on trucking industry

The closure and consequential reroute is causing headaches for the trucking industry. According to the Arkansas Trucking Association, the previous 8-minute drive is now averaging 84 minutes, costing the industry $2.4 million each day the bridge is closed. That is based on data from the American Transportation Research Institute that calculates the average cost of operating a truck at $1.20 a minute. Multiply that by the additional 76 minutes and the 26,000 trucks that typically cross the Hernando de Soto and Interstate 55 bridges each day, and the bridge closure becomes a multi-million dollar problem for the trucking industry.

“Freight is like water,” Arkansas Trucking Association President Shannon Newton said in a statement. “It will continue to flow. Our industry will continue to make deliveries. But if the additional expense is prolonged, it is likely to be passed on to consumers.”

According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, the once 15-minute travel times on Interstate 55 have turned into commutes as long as 75 minutes.

“The I-40 bridge and nearby I-55 bridge carry goods between East Coast and the Southwest and between the upper Midwest and the Gulf Coast,” the Bureau of Transportation Statistics stated on May 15. “East-west truck traffic diverted from the I-40 bridge is now mixing with north-south truck traffic on the I-55 bridge. An example of the many freight flows over the I-55 are shipments by truck between Chicago and St. Louis metropolitan areas to the north and Baton Rouge and New Orleans to the south.”

Crack went unnoticed for at least two years

During a news conference on Monday, May 17, ARDOT Director Lorie Tudor said the fracture on the Hernando de Soto Bridge has been there since at least mid-2019.

The Arkansas Department of Transportation confirmed that drone footage from 2019 reveals damage to the Hernando de Soto Bridge. A May 2019 video shows evidence of damage on the lower side of the bridge. ARDOT is looking into whether or not that damage was included in the September 2019 inspection report, raising questions about how long the bridge has been compromised and why it was missed.

Tudor put the blame on a single inspector who allegedly failed to do his job. That inspector was fired Monday morning. According to Tudor, the inspector failed to see the fracture in 2019 and 2020 due to failure in following Federal Highway Administration standards, including inspecting every square inch of the Hernando de Soto Bridge. Tudor emphasized that ARDOT did not cause this failure.

“We are in the process of referring this matter to the proper federal authorities for their determination if further investigation, criminal or otherwise, is warranted,” Tudor said. “However, this is not about the failure of one employee. This is about a failure in the inspection process that allowed this to happen.”

The fracture was discovered by a contractor, Michael Baker International, who was inspecting completely different parts of the Hernando de Soto Bridge.

When one of their engineers saw the fracture, the information was immediately sent to ARDOT.

On May 13, ARDOT and the Tennessee Department of Transportation announced they had generated a computer model of the bridge and adjusted it to include the damages and current conditions. The updated model will be used to test future repairs. The two DOTS stated that the first step is to complete temporary repairs designed to guarantee the safety of personnel and equipment required to be on the structure while putting the long term repairs into place.

Initially, the Coast Guard implemented waterway restrictions near the Hernando de Soto Bridge. Specifically, vessel traffic was restricted from mile marker 736 to mile marker 737 on the Mississippi River. When those restrictions were lifted on May 14, there were 62 vessels and 1,058 barges in queue, according to the Coast Guard.

Rex Vine, ARDOT deputy director and chief engineer, said on Monday that the department is reviewing applications from contractors for repair designs. Once a contractor is selected, ARDOT will produce a timeline. A contractor had not been selected as of publication.

According to Vine, repairs will be done in two phases. Phase one will be a temporary fix to allow crews to safely work on the bridge. Phase two will include the permanent repair.

For more information about progress on the Hernando de Soto Bridge, visit a website dedicated to the issue here. LL

 

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Tyson Fisher joined Land Line Magazine in March 2014. An award-winning journalist and tireless researcher, his news reports, features and blogs bring depth to our editorial content, backed with solid detail. Tyson is a lifelong Kansas Citian.