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Buttigieg Visits Memphis Bridge; Timeline Suggested

Monday, June 14, 2021

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Last Thursday (June 3), U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg traveled to the I-40 Hernando de Soto Bridge to meet with regional transportation officials on the structure’s closure and its affects on Tennessee and Arkansas freight movement.

In addition, U.S. Senator Marsha Blackburn (R), U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen (D), and acting Federal Highway Administrator Stephanie Pollack accompanied Buttigieg to meet with the representatives from FedEx, the Arkansas and Tennessee trucking associations and Memphis trucking company Ozark Motor Lines in a round-table discussion at the FedEx Distribution Center.

Bridge Closure Details

Following an afternoon inspection carried out by a contractor from Michael Baker International on May 11, both the TDOT, Arkansas Department of Transportation and local law enforcement shut down all associated road and water traffic while the damages were further analyzed.

According to reports, the structure carries more than 35,000 vehicles a day. While closed, traffic has been diverted to the I-55 bridge three miles away, which is noted to carry about 40,000 travelers per day. The Arkansas Trucking Association estimates a cost of $2.4 million daily to the trucking industry for each day the bridge is closed, although the waterway closure also had its negative effects.

Opened three days later by the Coast Guard, the waterway restrictions reportedly created a backup of 62 tugboats carrying 1,058 barges. On the same day that waterway restrictions had been lifted, investigators also discovered earlier evidence of damage on the bridge and were digging into previous reports and if any actions were taken. Upon taking a deeper dive, ARDOT Director Lorie Tudor said during a press conference that the inspection team leader who reviewed the original inspections of the bridge for both years had failed to note the fracture both times.

“From our investigation we have determined that the same employee who conducted the inspection in both 2019 and 2020 failed to carry out his responsibilities correctly,” Tudor said. “This is unacceptable and this employee has been terminated as of this morning.”

However, Tudor also added that the missed fracture from the previous inspections was not the fault of Michael Baker International, which conducted the inspections for the agency, and instead blamed a failure in ARDOT’s process. The Department is currently taking steps to correct this, which will include more checks and balances.

All bridges that were inspected by the fired employee have also been scheduled for reinspections.

Bridge History & Rehab Plans

Built in 1973 by Bethlehem Steel Co. of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, the bridge is a two-span steel through arch bridge that connects Memphis, Tennessee, with Critterden County, Arkansas. The two steel arch spans stretch 900 feet and include five continuous steel box girder spans.

In 1992, the structure was retrofitted to withstand potential earthquake activity along the New Madrid Fault Zone. In 2013, 2015 and 2017, engineering consulting group, Michael Baker International (Pittsburgh), performed federally required inspections on the bridge, most notably because of the complexity of the bridge.

According to ARDOT, more than 41,000 vehicles crossed the bridge in Memphis every day before it closed, and about 29% were trucks.

Located just off the midpoint of the mid-span is where the fracture was been located, within the elements of a steal box beam beneath the bridge deck. The arch truss is connected to box beams, meaning that the crack affects all of the box beam's outboard plate, all of its top plate and 20% of its bottom plate.

On May 17, TDOT announced the hiring of Kiewit Infrastructure Group as the contractor for the repairs. Conducted in two phases, the first phase involves the installation of steel plates on each side of the fractured member. Work for Phase 1 repairs was officially completed on May 25 and was conducted in 24-hour shifts. According to reports, the installation of steel plates will strengthen the damaged steel plates providing stability needed for crews to install equipment for the permanent replacement of the damaged components and continue bridge inspections.

The plates weigh roughly 18,000 pounds. The design of the plates and plans were provided to Stupp Bridge Company in Bowling Green, Kentucky for fabrication.

Currently underway, phase two of the project involves crafting the designs, which will later receive input from Kiewit, on the removal and replacement of the damaged piece to reopen traffic. TDOT will oversee repairs to the span that connects Memphis and West Memphis but hasn’t announced an official timeline for reopening.

Tennessee Transportation Commissioner Clay Bright noted that Kiewit had already ordered the materials to fix the beam but doesn’t expect them to arrive until late June.

“That’s where it is in the process,” said Bright. “Prep work will start probably this week, making sure we’ve prepped the existing beam for those materials that are coming in, so we’ll be ready for it once it hits the job.”

Bright adds that the installation of the materials could last through the end of July, or even August. After repairs are complete, Tennessee’ engineers will inspect the bridge in detail, focusing on welds similar to the one at the location of the fracture.

“We’re taking this investigation and inspection to another level, looking at all the welds and whatnot, and we’re hoping that conveys to the public how serious it is that their perceptions of that bridge [are comfortable],” Bright said. “Once they get back on it, it’s going to be safe for them.”

Call for Infrastructure Improvements Nationwide

While in Memphis, Buttigieg, alongside other government officials, met with leaders from the FedEx Corp. facility, which operates a massive fleet of airplanes and trucks out of its headquarters. The company noted that since the bridge’s closure in May, FedEx has experienced bad road traffic since being diverted to the nearby Interstate 55 bridge.

According to the Associated Press, the visit arrives following President Joe Biden’s proposal of a national, $1.7 trillion infrastructure package, as Republicans and Democrats work on a more narrow investment in roads, highways and other traditional public works projects.

Currently, the nation has more than 220,000 bridges in need of major repair or should be replaced, according to the American Road and Transportation Association and information from the U.S. Department of Transportation 2020 National Bridge Inventory database.

The 220,000 bridges represents 36%, or more than one-third, of all the nation’s bridges. In the report, the ARTBA points out that although the number of structurally deficient bridges declined 2.5% last year to 45,000, the number of bridges listed as being in fair condition increased by more than 3,600 to roughly 295,000.

In looking closer at those numbers, of the 45,000 structurally deficient bridges, nearly 11,200 are in serious or worse condition, with 1,668 listed as being in critical condition, 440 are in imminent failure stages and 970 that are already in a failed condition and are out of service.

To repair or replace the current backlog of structurally deficient bridges that ARTBA estimates that the work could take up to 40 years if completed at the current pace it’s working to now.

“Safety is at the heart of what’s happened at the De Soto bridge,” Buttigieg during the discussion at FedEx. “I know that that protracted closure has been frustrating, it has been difficult, it has been challenging, and it has been costly.”

Shannon Newton, President of the Arkansas Trucking Association, estimates that the current closure of the I-40 bridge is costing the industry about $2 million a day. “Geographically, we rely on the [I-40] bridge to connect us to the eastern part of the U.S.,” she said. “It’s disproportionately impacting the companies and businesses in Arkansas that rely on this sort of transportation and commerce.”

Tennessee Trucking Association President Donna England echoed these concerns as well.

In a letter to Biden days after the bridge’s closure, Republican U.S. Sen. Bill Hagerty of Tennessee said the shutdown is “affecting the lives and livelihoods of real people right now.”

In hearing from government officials, association representatives, Mayor Marco McClendon and other affected community members, Buttigieg was reported to feel “encouraged” after the visit that the situation would be corrected in the near future.

Arkansas Highway Commission Chairman Robert Moore said he too felt optimistic that the federal government would begin prioritizing aging infrastructure.

“I think [Buttigieg’s] presence here signifies that we’re on a path to taking care of a major problem in this country that affects everybody, and I think we’ll find broad support across the board from the political spectrum when it comes to repairing infrastructure,” Moore said. “I think it’s a good barometer of the way the wind’s blowing.”


Tagged categories: Bridges; Bridges; Government; Infrastructure; NA; North America; Ongoing projects; Program/Project Management; Project Management; Rehabilitation/Repair; Transportation

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