Interstate bridge over Mississippi River to begin reopening

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — The Interstate 40 bridge linking Arkansas and Tennessee that was closed after a crack was found in the span will begin reopening to traffic next week, transportation officials said Wednesday.

The Arkansas and Tennessee departments of transportation said the eastbound lanes of the Hernando DeSoto Bridge over the Mississippi River will reopen to limited traffic Monday morning. The span’s westbound lanes are slated to reopen Aug. 6.

“We know having the bridge closed has been incredibly inconvenient,” Tennessee Transportation Commissioner Clay Bright said in a statement. “We appreciate the public’s patience while our team made the repairs and performed extensive inspections to ensure it’s structurally sound for many years to come.”

The I-40 bridge was shut down May 11 after inspectors found a crack in one of two 900-foot (275-meter) horizontal steel beams critical for the bridge’s structural integrity. Road traffic had been diverted to the nearby Interstate 55 bridge during the I-40 bridge’s repairs.

The Arkansas Department of Transportation, which is charge of the bridge’s inspection, fired an inspector who missed the crack in 2019 and 2020. But pictures from a kayaker indicate the crack was visible in 2016.

The crack is being investigated by the Federal Highway Administration and the U.S. Department of Transportation’s inspector general. Arkansas Transportation Director Lori Tudor said it’s also being investigated by her department.

The fractured section of the beam, which was removed, is undergoing forensic analysis to determine when and how the fracture occurred, Arkansas Deputy Transportation Director Rex Vines told the state’s highway commission Wednesday morning.

The announcement comes days after Tennessee transportation officials said the bridge likely wouldn’t reopen until early August. Workers this week finished installing 17 steel plates needed to repair the bridge.

The Tennessee Department of Transportation said the opening plan is barring any complications and planned to put out another update Friday. Workers will begin breaking down platforms and removing equipment on the bridge’s eastbound side starting Friday, officials said.

I-40 is a key artery for U.S. commerce, running from North Carolina to California. Manufacturers and shippers rely on the interstate to move products and materials across the river. About 50,000 vehicles typically travel across the bridge when it’s open, with about a quarter of those being commercial trucks, Tennessee transportation officials say.

The bridge had been closed in the midst of the negotiations in Washington over a bipartisan infrastructure package. U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg visited the span last month to highlight its closure was having on the area.

The trucking industry has absorbed more than $70 million in additional costs because of the closure, the Arkansas Trucking Association said last month. The group, however, said the average cost to the industry of the closure had reduced from $2.4 million a day to just under $1 million.

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