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TDOT: I-40 bridge could be closed for months

BLAKE FONTENAY | THE DAILY MEMPHIAN

The state Department of Transportation’s chief engineer acknowledged Wednesday, May 12, that it could be months before the Interstate 40 bridge across the Mississippi River can safely reopen to traffic.

“Certainly, it’s plausible that it could take months rather than weeks,” said Paul Degges, TDOT’s chief engineer. “Right now, we just don’t know.”

Such an extended closure of one of the two major thoroughfares over the Mississippi River for cars and trucks represents a worst-case scenario.

Within a day of the bridge’s closure, the impact was already being felt by commuters and businesses throughout the region and beyond.

Already facing a number of other issues with their supply chains, business executives expect the bridge closure to further delay the shipment of goods.

A routine inspection Tuesday, May 11, revealed structural damage to a steel box beam used to support the bridge.

At a news briefing Wednesday at the Tennessee Welcome Center on Riverside Drive, Degges said a preliminary analysis is underway to determine if the bridge is stable enough to support its own weight without risk of collapsing. That determination must be made before the river can be safely reopened to barge traffic and repair work can commence.

Typically, Degges said it takes about three to four days to complete a physical inspection of the bridge. After the field work is complete, it may take additional days to analyze the results of that work and determine what type of repairs are needed.

Degges said, in theory, that could mean a couple of weeks before barge traffic could resume.

“I’m hoping our analysis will be faster than that,” he added.

Depending on what the inspection reveals, there are different scenarios for how repair work could proceed.

If the damage isn’t too serious, it might be possible to reopen parts of the bridge while the damaged section is being repaired. If the damage is more severe, it might be necessary to close the entire bridge for an extended period of time.

Degges didn’t speculate about which scenario seemed more likely, nor what was the likely cause of cracks in the support truss.

The interstate bridges are inspected on a regular schedule every two years. During its previous inspection two years ago, Degges said the I-40 bridge was determined to be in “fair” condition.

Meanwhile, transportation officials on the Tennessee and Arkansas sides of the river are gearing up to deal with expected traffic delays on the nearby Interstate 55 bridge.

Degges said the I-40 bridge typically carries about 50,000 vehicles per day, about one-quarter of which are tractor-trailer trucks.

Much of that traffic is expected to be diverted onto the I-55 bridge, for travelers who don’t have the practical option of diverting farther north or south to use other bridges outside the city.

Degges’ estimate of the I-40 bridge’s traffic counts may have been on the low side.

In 2006, the Tennessee Department of Transportation commissioned a study into the feasibility of adding a third bridge across the Mississippi somewhere in the Memphis area.

According to that study, the average daily traffic in 2004 across the I-40 bridge was 54,420 vehicles and 49,800 vehicles for the I-55 bridge. That study said traffic had increased 50% over the previous 10-year period.

The idea of building a third bridge across the Mississippi has been under discussion, off and on, for many years.

Bobby White, chief public policy officer for the Greater Memphis Chamber, said the I-40 bridge closure may help bring those discussions back to the forefront of the community’s consciousness.

“It’s absolutely critical for economic development, not only for the community, but for the country,” White said. “We’ve been trying to reboot that.”

The 2006 third bridge study discussed several potential routes, with costs ranging from $501 million to $709 million for cars, plus $332 million to $443 million for a bridge designed to accommodate trains as well. However, those were estimates given in 2010 dollars.

At the news briefing, Degges said the actual construction cost would be $1.5 billion “if it’s a nickel.”

“A billion and a half dollars is big money,” Degges said.

The study estimated that it would take five years to build a new bridge.

That would be a long-term solution, at best. In the short term, business executives say consumers should expect more delays and increased shipping costs.

Woodson Dunavant, senior vice president of enterprise business development and marketing for Dunavant Logistics, said this new issue compounds the transportation issues many businesses were already facing.

“We anticipate that there will be surcharges on inbound and outbound Memphis freight,” Dunavant said. “You couldn’t really pick a worse time for this to happen. But we’ll deal with it.”

Greg Costa, president of Delta Materials Handling Inc., said his business may relocate more of the warehouse equipment it rents and station service technicians at its facility in Jonesboro, Ark., to more easily serve customers on the Arkansas side of the river.

“It seems like every day, there’s a new opportunity to rethink what you do,” Costa said.

FedEx Corp., the city’s largest employer, issued a statement late Tuesday, saying the company is assessing the situation.

“FedEx is closely monitoring the situation with the Hernando de Soto Bridge closure, and we are implementing contingency plans to minimize any impact on service,” the company’s statement said.

The shutdown is also having an impact on river traffic.

George Leavell, co-owner and executive vice president of Wepfer Marine Inc., a Memphis-based company that provides harbor and fleeting services, was taking a wait-and-see attitude toward the situation.

“I think everything is in a holding pattern until engineers assess the scope of the damage and the amount of time needed to repair the damage,” Leavell said.

Leavell said the Army Corps of Engineers estimated that 430,000 tons of cargo move through Memphis along the river each day.

“Hopefully, this will be a short-lived interruption in river traffic, but right now, no one knows,” Leavell said.

Deb Calhoun, senior vice president of the Washington, D.C. based Waterways Council Inc., said the incident demonstrates the importance of maintaining proper infrastructure to support travel and commerce.

“While we await more information on how the bridge will be repaired and how long that will take, this infrastructure crisis underscores the importance of what the river provides to the nation,” Calhoun said. “If the river shuts down for a significant period of time, grain exports, energy product deliveries, steel imports and exports, and many other key commodities that Americans depend upon will be impacted and curtailed.”