The Interstate 40 bridge connecting Memphis, Tennessee, to Arkansas will remain closed at least several weeks for repairs.

During a May 11 routine inspection of the bridge, an Arkansas Department of Transportation (ARDOT) engineer spotted a fractured beam.

Related: Crack in I-40 bridge shuts down traffic between Tennessee, Arkansas

“We need to get people off the bridge immediately,” he warned, according to the recording of his 911 call.

ARDOT immediately shut down the bridge to avert a potential disaster. The Coast Guard closed a section of the river to vessel traffic for a few days but lifted the restriction Friday. However, the bridge remains closed to all vehicles.

“It will be a number of weeks at least until we can have a [temporary] repair in place, probably six to eight weeks minimum,” Paul Degges, Tennessee Department of Transportation lead engineer, told CNN on Thursday. “Hopefully, we can pull a rabbit out of a hat sooner, but public safety is most important. There are lots of moving parts to look at.”

TDOT is working on interim repairs, allowing time for a new bridge component to be fabricated to replace the damaged section. ARDOT continues to keep an eye on the fracture to ensure that no additional fractures are propagating from the existing section.

“We absolutely want to get the bridge open as soon as possible, but we’re not going to shoot from the hip here,” Tennessee Transportation Commissioner Clay Bright said. “We want to have the best fix, long term, to get this bridge back open.”

Damage to Interstate 40 bridge between Memphis and eastern Arkansas. Top photo is from May 2019; bottom is from May 2021. (Photos: ARDOT)

The 48-year-old bridge, also known as the Hernando de Soto Bridge, carries traffic on I-40 between downtown Memphis and rural eastern Arkansas. It’s a “vital piece of America’s infrastructure for moving traffic and freight around the country,” as described by Memphis’ WMC-TV. According to transportation officials, the average daily traffic for the bridge was 35,000 to 45,000 vehicles. Trucks made up 25% to 29% percent of that volume.

The Interstate 55 bridge is the only way to quickly get around the I-40 bridge closure. Tennessee I-40 westbound drivers should take the I-55 bridge across the Mississippi River into Arkansas, then take Exit 4 to get back onto I-40 westbound. This is only a few miles out of the way. Because most drivers will likely continue taking this detour, they should expect significant delays at times.

Another route is the Interstate 155 bridge through Dyersburg, Tennessee, but this is 90 miles north of the I-40 bridge. Drivers could also take the U.S. Highway 49 bridge through West Helena, Arkansas, but this route would take them 70 miles south of the I-40 bridge.

The de Soto Bridge was last inspected by ARDOT in September 2020 and by contractors in May 2019. The crack was not reported in either inspection.

Related: Vessel traffic flowing again on Mississippi River under I-40

ARDOT confirmed last week that an image captured by an inspector’s drone, taken during the 2019 inspection, shows a crack in the same area of the fracture that led to the recent shutdown.

Director Lorie Tudor said in a press conference Monday that the drone video was five hours long, and the crack appeared for less than one second. So nobody noticed it back then. She added that the 2019 inspection was focused on cables and rods above the bridge, and she does not blame the contractors for missing the damage underneath.

“The fault lies with ARDOT, that we didn’t discover it during our normal inspection process [in 2020],” Tudor said.

Tudor explained that the next step in reviewing this failure is to make sure this problem is not systemic.

Click here for more FreightWaves articles by Nick Austin.

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