Timeline for I-40 Mississippi River Bridge Repair Uncertain

State officials emphasize the importance of safety as they work to reopen the bridge.

I-40 Mississippi River Bridge
Photo courtesy: Arkansas Department of Transportation.

Kiewit Corporation has been selected to perform repairs to the Interstate 40 Mississippi River Bridge, but Tennessee Commissioner of Transportation Clay Bright said it will likely be some time before those repairs are completed. 

“It could be several months easily, but we just don’t know,” he said.

Bright made his comments during a press conference hosted by the governors of Arkansas and Tennessee yesterday. Officials from both states have been working together since a fracture in the bridge was discovered during a routine inspection May 11. The bridge, which connects West Memphis, Ark., to Memphis, Tenn., was closed following the discovery of the damage.

Officials have three goals, Bright said. The first was to open up the bridge for barge traffic, which happened Friday morning in conjunction with the United States Coast Guard. As of Saturday evening, about 800 barges had cleared the cue. 

“Our second priority that we have here is opening the bridge for vehicular traffic, and the third priority that goes along with that second one is to complete the inspection on the bridge and to make sure and look for any long-term issues that may be related to this failure,” Bright said.

The first phase of the repair involves placing 35-foot-long steel plates on either side of the fractured beam. Tennessee officials have an arrangement with Stupp Bridge Company in Bowling Green, Ky., who is expected to fabricate the plates by today or tomorrow. The Tennessee Department of Transportation has trucks on standby to pick up the 18,000 pound plates and deliver them to the job site.

The second phase design is also underway. This will enable crews to install equipment to span the fracture, cut it out and replace it with brand new material, Bright said. 

While the I-40 bridge has been closed, many vehicles have rerouted across the I-55 bridge. Bright has agreed to reinspect the I-55 bridge which was requested by Arkansas Department of Transportation director Lorie Tudor out of an “overabundance of caution.” Two drone teams were deployed yesterday morning to begin the inspection.

Safety is of the utmost importance, Bright said. Not only for the public, but also for contractors, workers and inspectors.

“We have been and we will continue to work around the clock, and the attitude of everybody that’s been a part of this is to do whatever it takes to get this bridge open as soon as possible,” Bright said. 

I-40 Bridge crack
A routine inspection uncovered the fracture in the I-40 bridge May 11.

Arkansas and Tennessee share responsibilities and costs for the I-40 bridge. ARDOT manages inspections while TDOT oversees maintenance and repairs. The I-40 bridge was built in 1973 and sees an average of more than 41,000 vehicles a day with 31 percent of that traffic being big rigs, according to ARDOT officials. 

Prior to the closure, the I-55 bridge experienced more daily traffic than the I-40 bridge. Completed in 1949, I-55 saw around 46,000 vehicles a day, with about 35 percent of that traffic consisting of commercial trucks. Those numbers will likely increase while the I-40 bridge remains closed.

The I-40 bridge gets inspected annually and its last inspection was Sept. 2020. On May 14, ARDOT officials announced they found video from May 2019 that shows evidence of the damage on the lower side of the bridge. On May 17, ARDOT confirmed there was a failure in the inspection process which allowed evidence of damage to the I-40 bridge to go unnoticed. 

Officials determined the same employee who conducted the inspection in both 2019 and 2020 “failed to carry out his responsibilities correctly.” In a statement, ARDOT director Lorie Tudor said it was “unacceptable” and the employee was fired Monday morning. Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson applauded Tudor who he said has been very transparent, didn’t make excuses and took quick action.

“Secondly, she looked at the processes to make sure that we have the redundant inspections that we need, that we have the checks and balances,” Hutchinson said. “So I think she’s shown incredible leadership during this time and addressed it in the right way to give people confidence that this is something that we will take seriously.”

The I-40 bridge is a critical link for Arkansas and this situation illustrates the importance of investing in infrastructure, Hutchinson said. As the repair process moves forward, officials will do so with a sense of urgency while keeping safety in mind.

“We’re going to work together to get this done as soon as possible and in a safe way to make sure our citizens know that safety is the premium quality that we want to emphasize,” Hutchinson said.

As part of its transparency efforts, the Arkansas Department of Transportation is posting updates about the I-40 bridge repairs on its website.   

Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is an Arkansas-based journalist. She has covered race, culture, politics, health, education and the arts for NPR affiliates as well as print and digital publications since 2007.