MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — An inspection of the Interstate 55 bridge connecting Tennessee and Arkansas began Tuesday, a week after the span became the states' primary Mississippi River crossing when a cracked steel beam prompted the indefinite closure of the nearby Interstate 40 bridge.
Inspectors using drones were looking closely at the 71-year old I-55 bridge to ensure it is structurally sound and can withstand the higher volume of road traffic it has seen since the I-40 bridge was closed May 11, said Clay Bright, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Transportation.
Repairs to the heavily-used I-40 bridge are expected to begin this week, but a long-term fix could take months, officials said. The states are relying on the I-55 bridge to get cars and trucks across the Mississippi River and maintain the flow of commercial vehicles. During a news conference in Memphis, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee and Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said the two states, along with federal agencies, were working together to repair the I-40 bridge. Both Lee and Hutchinson are Republicans.
"We will work to repair this in the shortest time possible, but we will not compromise the safety of the workers or the safety of the citizens that will drive across that bridge for the sake of finishing early," Lee said. Officials called for the I-55 bridge inspection out of an "over-abundance of caution," Bright said. Should problems be found by Tennessee inspectors on the I-55 bridge — which lies about 3 miles (4.8 kilometers) south of the I-40 bridge — it could lead to its closure and send motorists to river crossings 100 miles (160 kilometers) to the north near Dyersburg, Tennessee, or 60 miles (96 kilometers) to the south near Lula, Mississippi.
The new inspection comes a day after Arkansas transportation officials said an inspector who failed to find the defect in the I-40 bridge had been fired. Drone video showed the crack on the bridge spanning the Mississippi River in May 2019, Arkansas Department of Transportation Director Lorie Tudor said Monday. Tudor said the crack was not noted by the inspector in his reports that fall or the following year. She called the mistake "unacceptable." The department did not immediately name the employee and said the incident is also being referred to federal investigators.
Opened in 1973, the I-40 bridge connected Memphis and the Arkansas city of West Memphis. It was shut down May 11 after inspectors found a fracture in one of two 900-foot (274-meter) horizontal steel beams that are critical for the bridge's integrity. River traffic under the span was closed that day, but reopened on Friday. Road traffic was rerouted to the I-55 bridge, and traffic there has been heavy.
The I-40 bridge closure has raised concerns about shipping and delivery costs. The Arkansas Trucking Association has estimated the closure would cost the trucking industry at least $2.4 million a day. "This is a critical, critical link for Arkansas," Hutchinson said of the I-40 bridge "Whenever you see a break in the commerce, whenever you see a defect in a bridge, then you realize how dependent you are on that flow of commerce."
Hutchinson called the closed I-40 bridge "a federal link that is important for our national security, whether it's the flow of fuel or whether it is the flow of other necessary items across our country." The I-40 bridge repair could take several months, Bright said. It will be conducted in two phases, and both steps must be completed before the bridge can be reopened.
The first step is installing steel plates on each side of the fractured beam to provide stability for crews to permanently replace the damaged parts. The second phase involves removal and replacement of the damaged piece of the bridge.
The bridge's closure comes as the White House is negotiating with a group of Senate Republicans on an infrastructure package. Democrats have called the I-40 bridge damage an example of the urgent need for additional funding to fix the nation's infrastructure. Republicans have called for a infrastructure plan with a smaller price tag than President Joe Biden's and with a narrower definition of public works.
In Arkansas, all "fracture critical" bridges that had been inspected by the fired employee will be re-inspected, Tudor said. The department is changing its inspection program to add additional checks, including the use of a new drone to aid in inspecting bridges, she said.
Tudor has said that the I-40 bridge's damage could have led to a "catastrophic" event. Hutchinson said Tudor "took quick action" in firing the employee and did not make excuses for the mistake.
"I think she handled it perfectly well," said Hutchinson. Tudor told Arkansas lawmakers the inspection of the I-55 bridge may be completed by Wednesday.