Reopening finishes early for I-40 bridge

Job done 4 days ahead of schedule

Traffic heads along Interstate 40 near the Hernando de Soto Bridge Monday afternoon in this screenshot of video provided by the Arkansas Department of Transportation.

The Interstate 40 bridge over the Mississippi River between Memphis and West Memphis fully reopened Monday, four days ahead of schedule.

"For my city, we are partying in the street," said West Memphis Mayor Marco McClendon. "It's a great day, having both sides of the bridge open. It's some type of normalcy."

The six-lane Hernando de Soto Bridge had been closed since May 11, when a crack was discovered in a steel beam.

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After a considerable amount of repair work on the cracked beam and to reinforce welds on other parts of the bridge, the eastbound lanes were reopened Saturday night.

McClendon said the westbound lanes reopened about 1 p.m. Monday.

A woman was driving over the bridge into West Memphis about that time, apparently the first person to cross the bridge in that direction after barriers to traffic were removed.

She called McClendon saying: "I'm the only one on this side."

"She said she didn't feel right," said McClendon, who assured her it was OK to be crossing the bridge heading west.

The mayor said he just hadn't gotten a chance at that point to announce the westbound lane reopening on social media.

McClendon said he was the first person to cross the bridge's eastbound lanes when they were reopened Saturday night.

Built in 1973, the 3-mile-long Hernando de Soto Bridge between Memphis and West Memphis is part of a major freight corridor through the central U.S.

Since its closure, traffic has been routed to the 71-year-old Memphis and Arkansas bridge, about 3 miles to the south on Interstate 55.

The Tennessee Department of Transportation announced late Monday morning that the westbound lanes would reopen that day. They had previously been scheduled to open on Friday.

"The contractor has completed the work and clean up in the westbound lanes," Nichole Lawrence, a spokeswoman for the Tennessee agency, said in an update Monday. "All westbound lanes will reopen this afternoon by 3:00 p.m.!"

Kiewit Corp. of Omaha, Neb., was the contractor for the bridge repair.

The Tennessee Department of Transportation oversees repairs of the shared bridge, while the Arkansas department is responsible for inspections.

Dave Parker, a spokesman for the Arkansas Department of Transportation, said the early opening of the bridge was "great news for everybody."

State Sen. Keith Ingram, D-West Memphis, said it was a "tremendous coordinated effort" between Tennessee and Arkansas transportation departments to get the bridge reopened this soon. He noted the 17 steel plates used to repair the bridge were fabricated by W&W/AFCO Steel, which has operations in Little Rock and Van Buren.

"When we realized the gravity of the situation, I feared it was going to run into the fall with farmers hauling crops to Memphis and such," said Ingram. "So this is great that it's done by the first of August."

Ingram said there has been some damage to service roads and streets in West Memphis because of the bridge closure.

"Some of the city streets in West Memphis are torn up pretty good by trucks trying to find a quicker route to Memphis," he said.

Some of the truck drivers were apparently following global positioning systems that took them through residential neighborhoods, said McClendon. In an attempt to make turns, some of the trucks ran across gutters or lawns, he said.

Ingram said another bridge for motor vehicles is needed in the area.

"We are desperate for a third bridge across the Mississippi River," he said.

Ingram said there was a major push for a new bridge in 1995. At that time, the cost would have been $225 million. Now, it would be over $2 billion.

In late May, the I-55 bridge was carrying 67,000 vehicles per day, according to the Tennessee Department of Transportation. Before the de Soto bridge closure, the I-40 and I-55 bridges each averaged more than 40,000 vehicles daily, according to the Arkansas Transportation Department.

Besides the I-40 and I-55 bridges, there are two railroad bridges over the Mississippi River at Memphis.

While the crack in a steel beam on the 1-40 bridge was discovered May 11, a photo from 2019, confirmed by transportation officials to be authentic, shows the crack has potentially been there for years.

Another photo appears to show a crack as far back as 2016, but the authenticity of that image remains under investigation.

The discovery led the Arkansas department to fire the inspection team leader for missing the crack during at least two previous inspections, which are conducted annually.

In her update on Monday, Lawrence provided additional information for motorists, particularly those on the Tennessee side of the bridge.

"Ramps previously closed along I-40 westbound will be reopening," wrote Lawrence. "The ramp from Metal Museum Drive to I-55 south will remain closed. The currently closed right lane from Riverside Drive to I-55 south will also remain closed. All other ramps around the I-55 and Crump interchange will be reopening."