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Repairs to cracked Mississippi River interstate bridge will stretch on for weeks

The Tennessee Department of Transportation needs custom-made, 150-foot plates weighing 53 tons each to repair the crack

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg tours the closed Hernando de Soto bridge, which carries Interstate 40 traffic across the Mississippi River between West Memphis, Ark., and Memphis. (Joe Rondone/The Commercial Appeal/Pool/Reuters) (Joe Rondone/Pool/Via Reuters)
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Repairs to a cracked Mississippi River bridge in Memphis are likely to stretch for two more months, officials said Thursday, as Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg visited the city to inspect the work and hear how the lengthy closure has affected nearby communities.

Clay Bright, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Transportation, said the agency expects to take delivery of custom-designed repair materials — including 53-ton, 150-foot-long metal plates — later this month, with installation stretching at least through July. The Hernando de Soto Bridge carried 60,000 vehicles daily on Interstate 40, but was closed May 11 when inspectors discovered the crack in a steel support beam.

“I will assure you this: Sometimes you may look on the bridge and you may not see anybody, but I guarantee you there is somebody somewhere” working on the project, Bright said. “We are working on this 24 hours a day.”

Since the closure, drivers have been funneled onto a nearby bridge, causing delays and disruptions.

The first phase of repairs to stabilize the bridge was completed last week. Bright said crews will prepare the work site in the coming days, obtaining and installing materials and completing inspections to ensure that no other parts of the bridge are compromised.

“We are doing a lot more than what we would in a normal bridge inspection,” Bright said, describing ultrasound scans of welds. He said he hoped the high level of effort being put into inspections will convince the public that the bridge is safe when it reopens. Officials on Thursday did not provide a target date for reopening the bridge.

The dramatic episode, in which inspectors placed urgent calls to 911 to get the bridge shut down after the crack was discovered, has symbolized the risks posed by the nation’s aging transportation infrastructure as the Biden administration is pushing for funding to rebuild roads and bridges. Buttigieg, speaking with the bridge as his backdrop, said its closure underscored how the nation is interconnected — the highway that crosses the bridge stretches from Wilmington, N.C., to Barstow, Calif.

‘We need to shut traffic down’: Massive crack in Memphis bridge prompted urgent 911 calls

“Put simply, the reason that I’m here is to emphasize that the situation with this bridge may be a regional issue, but it’s a national concern,” Buttigieg said.

President Biden initially proposed a $2.3 trillion package of spending, including hundreds of billions of dollars for transportation. He has been in negotiations with Republican senators, who favor a smaller sum. Talks have continued this week, with Biden signaling that he could support a $1 trillion package.

Disruptions stemming from the closure have been felt across the Memphis region. Marco McClendon, mayor of West Memphis, Ark., said his community has been nearly paralyzed by the closure. Buttigieg said he was told that trucks had been directed onto residential streets, with workers in the hospitality industry seeing their hours cut.

“We are grateful and glad this was detected without any loss of life, but that doesn’t mean the closure hasn’t been painful,” Buttigieg said.

A nearby bridge, on I-55, has been inspected to ensure it can handle the additional traffic. Officials say they have found no problems there.

Earlier Thursday, Buttigieg met with executives from Memphis-based FedEx and trucking companies to discuss the ripples of the closure.

Shannon Newton, president of the Arkansas Trucking Association, said delays have forced truck drivers to change their work schedules, hurting their quality of life.

“What used to be a 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. [shift] has switched to a 2 a.m. to 2 p.m. shift,” Newton said.