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BRENDA BLAGG: A warning sign?

Bridge damage reflects national discussion on infrastructure by Brenda Blagg | May 19, 2021 at 1:00 a.m.

As Congress argues over President Joe Biden's $2.3 trillion spending plan, Arkansas and Tennessee are paying the price of not tending to failing infrastructure needs that are a part of the package.

For more than a week now, 41,000-plus vehicles that normally cross the Mississippi River each day on the Interstate 40 bridge between West Memphis and Memphis have had to find other routes.

That will be their routine until these two states, which share ownership of the I-40 bridge, get the bridge fixed.

Early in the afternoon of May 11, a routine inspection by drone revealed a significant crack in a load-bearing beam, prompting immediate closure of the I-40 bridge. It will remain closed to traffic until the crack is repaired.

That could be weeks, maybe months away.

River traffic beneath the 48-year-old bridge was stopped, too, but has since been allowed to resume. In the meantime, more than 45 towboats and about 700 barges were stalled north and south of the bridge, until engineers decided it is capable of standing on its own even with the damaged beam.

Officials are trying yet to determine when repair crews will be allowed to work on the structure, not to mention how long the six-lane bridge must remain closed to cars and trucks.

By agreement, the Arkansas Department of Transportation is responsible for inspections, while its Tennessee counterpart is responsible for repair of the bridge. The two departments will split the cost, whatever that turns out to be.

The bridge, which opened in 1973, is still called the "new" bridge by the people who use it most. It is newer than the "old" Interstate 55 bridge that also spans the Mississippi River into Memphis. That 71-year-old structure is where most I-40 traffic, including commuters and significant east-west truck traffic, has been diverted roughly three miles south of the I-40 crossing.

Two other bridges, 75 and 90 miles away, cross the Mississippi on Arkansas 49 through Helena-West Helena, Ark., and I-155 through Caruthersville, Mo., respectively, but aren't convenient to traffic bound through Memphis.

That explains the growing congestion on I-55, which is forcing delays, particularly for eastbound traffic into Memphis.

Imagine the hassle of living on one side of the river and commuting to work or school or medical services on the other and not knowing how long it will take to make the I-40 bridge safe again.

Suddenly, tending to the nation's woeful infrastructure needs, including emergency repairs like this one, takes on new significance. Or it should.

Inspection of the fracture in the bridge beam continues, according to Lorie Tudor, director of the Arkansas DOT. The beam is central to the integrity of the bridge, she said.

Just how bad is this?

"This fracture had the potential of becoming a catastrophic event that was prevented by our staff's diligent effort in managing our bridge inspection program, Tudor said on Friday.

Her praise was for a bridge inspection team working under contract that she called "heroes" for discovering the crack on the first day of an annual inspection and immediately notifying emergency personnel.

By Monday, she announced that an unnamed 15-year veteran of the Arkansas department had lost his job because his inspection team missed the potentially catastrophic fracture. Drone video made in May 2019 confirmed the existence of the crack back then, but it went undetected or unreported.

The state investigation continues and has also been referred to federal authorities.

None of that resolves the problem the crack has caused for the people, goods and services that must cross the river into and out of Memphis.

"This is a major, major event," said Shannon Newton, president of the Arkansas Trucking Association, explaining that she has little hope for a quick fix or any immediate use of the I-40 bridge, where truck traffic accounted for almost a third of the daily crossings.

She said it is fortunate the crack was discovered in a routine inspection and not in an investigation of a catastrophic incident.

"However, it doesn't change the fact that this closure will have a significant ripple effect on the already strained supply chain."

Think back to 2007 when another bridge, this one over the Mississippi River at Minneapolis, collapsed without warning during rush hour.

Talk about ripple effects. Dozens of vehicles fell into the river. Thirteen people died. Another 145 were hurt.

At least the contract inspectors did see the crack in the Memphis bridge before any such catastrophe could happen.

Yet, this bridge is just one of 90 in Arkansas and 5,000 across the nation that are classified as both "fracture critical" and "structurally deficient."

Any one of them could be the next to collapse, if that bridge isn't structurally redundant and capable of carrying a load even after damage to or failure of one of its systems.

Engineers in both Arkansas and Tennessee are confident the I-40 bridge can be repaired. They said the likely cause of the fracture is the bridge's age and almost 50 years of constant traffic on its deck.

The "new" has long worn off this critical bridge at the crossroads of America.

This bridge will get fixed, but the bigger question is whether the U.S. Congress will step up to invest in the nation's failing infrastructure before catastrophe strikes somewhere else.

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