I-40 bridge shutdown being examined by U.S. DOT and FHWA

June 18, 2021

Tyson Fisher

|

The U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration are each looking into the I-40 bridge between Arkansas and Tennessee after a significant fracture went unnoticed for at least two years.

Federal and internal inquiries

On Wednesday, June 16, Arkansas Department of Transportation officials gave the Arkansas State Highway Commission an update on the I-40 bridge during the commission’s first meeting since the bridge was shut down more than one month ago. During its presentation, ARDOT revealed that the U.S. DOT is launching an investigation and audit into the matter.

Rex Vines, ARDOT’s deputy director and chief engineer, told commissioners that the U.S. DOT inspector general will be conducting an investigation regarding the fracture on the I-40 bridge. According to Vines, ARDOT initiated the I-40 bridge investigation by requesting it from the U.S. DOT. The U.S. DOT is assigning a special agent to the investigation.

Additionally, FHWA plans to review ARDOT’s bridge inspection process and compliance. FHWA has general oversight of the state’s inspection program and already conducts compliance reviews every year. According to Vines, ARDOT’s inspection program has always received positive reviews.

“One thing that I would like to bring out is the department has never been rated as noncompliant,” Vines said. “In fact, in many ways the Arkansas bridge inspection program exceeds the minimum requirements to maintain compliance.”

A 2019 FHWA review called ARDOT’s bridge inspection program “functioning and effective.” Another FHWA review from 2011 congratulates the department on its “proactive efforts to maintain (ARDOT’s) bridge inventory at the highest level.”

In addition to the two federal actions, ARDOT is asking the Tennessee Department of Transportation to reinspect and review its previous inspection of the I-55 Mississippi River bridge, which is where the I-40 detour is in place. The I-40 bridge agreement has ARDOT responsible for inspections on bridges between to the states. TDOT is responsible for maintenance and repairs.

ARDOT also is soliciting consultants to review its bridge inspection program.

I-40 bridge detours working

During the Arkansas State Highway Commission meeting, ARDOT Assistant Chief Engineer for Operations Steve Frisbee revealed that traffic times on the Interstate 55 bridge are back to normal. Traffic delays of more than one hour were occurring on the bridge after traffic was diverted there after the I-40 bridge shutdown.

On June 8, ARDOT implemented significant changes in traffic patterns to relieve the additional congestion, including:

  • I-55 southbound will be down to a single outside lane just before the western I-40/I-55 Interchange.
  • I-40 eastbound already narrows to a single lane at the I-40/I-55 interchange. Closure of exit ramps at 7th Street and Ingram Boulevard to I-40 traffic.
  • I-40 traffic will continue in the inside lane and I-55 traffic will continue in the outside lane through Ingram Boulevard.  Closure of the middle lane to separate eastbound traffic between the western and eastern I-40/I-55 Interchanges.
  • East of Ingram Boulevard eastbound traffic will transition into two adjacent lanes.
  • Closure of the I-40/I-55 on-ramp at Ingram Boulevard.

Those changes appear to be working.

Before the changes, peak traffic on Mondays experienced delays of 45 minutes. Tuesday traffic delays were 65 minutes.

After the traffic pattern changes, peak traffic delays for both Monday, June 14, and Tuesday, June 15, have dramatically reduced to 10 minutes.

I-40 bridge detour delay chart
This chart presented to the Arkansas State Highway Commission on June 16 shows how I-40 bridge detours implemented on June 9 has significantly reduced traffic delays from more than one hour to 10 minutes.

“It was basically green, free-flow conditions,” Frisbee said. “We couldn’t have asked for anything better. We are cautiously optimistic. The busiest travel days are Wednesdays and Thursdays, but we feel these changes that have been made were correct and will continue to make an impact for better flow for the duration the I-40 closure period.”

Missed fracture indicative of bigger problem?

Vines pointed out that ARDOT inspects many bridges annually despite federal regulations requiring those bridges to be inspected every other year, the I-40 bridge among those bridges. This suggests there may be an issue with the inspection process at the federal level. ARDOT Director Lorie Tudor told the Arkansas State Highway Commission that lessons learned from the I-40 bridge incident can be applied nationally.

“There is so much that we have learned and we’re continuing to learn during this crisis,” Tudor said. “This has been a huge challenge for all of us and especially for those folks out there on the road. We really want to say that we understand that, but we’re learning from this. The lessons learned are going to be applied across this nation, because our transportation infrastructure across the nation is aging. These kinds of situations are probably going to become more frequent.”

In response to the I-40 bridge incident, ARDOT will significantly increase its heavy bridge maintenance budget. This year, the budget is $3.5 million. For 2022, the budget will be $6.4 million.

The fracture has been on the I-40 bridge for at least two years, possibly six.

Drone footage from 2019 clearly shows the fracture on the bridge. A kayaker is claiming to have photos of the fracture that he captured five years ago. According to CBS News, an Associated Press photo editor determined the photo was shot in August 2016 based on metadata from one of the photos.

During Wednesday’s meeting, Vines said ARDOT does not have the technology to verify the validity of the photos. However, the department has turned those photos over to the U.S. DOT Office of Inspector General. In its internal investigations, ARDOT is treating the photos as accurate “as to not leave any stone unturned,” Vines said.

As of publication, there is no expected date for reopening the bridge. For updates on I-40 bridge repairs, click here. LL

 

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.