Two governors visit Memphis as monthslong I-40 bridge repair begins

Katherine Burgess
Memphis Commercial Appeal

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee and Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson visited Memphis on Tuesday to assess progress on the Hernando de Soto bridge repair and to address the need for federal action on infrastructure.

The two governors praised the work of local leadership and stressed that safety comes first as repairs are made on the Interstate 40 bridge. 

A week ago, both river and interstate traffic were halted on and under the I-40 bridge after inspectors called 911 and reported a critical fracture in one of the bridge's support beams located near the center of the 'M' design. 

By Friday, the Coast Guard gave the go-ahead for river traffic to resume, but it could be weeks, or even months, before vehicular traffic is allowed to resume on the bridge.

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“Our number one priority here is the safety of the people that travel across that bridge — the Tennesseans, Arkansans, Americans, truckers, the commerce, everyone who goes across that bridge — is dependent upon us to make certain that it’s safe, and that is our number one priority. Our other priority is that commerce move up the river, down the river and across the bridges," Lee said. “We will work to repair this in the shortest time possible, but we will not compromise the safety of the workers or the safety of the citizens that drive across that bridge for the sake of finishing early.”

Hutchinson praised the leadership of Lorie Tudor, director of the Arkansas Department of Transportation, including in firing an inspector who failed for years to spot the fracture in the bridge and in ordering that other bridges inspected by that employee be reevaluated. 

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee addresses members of the media during a press conference at the I-40 Welcome Center in Downtown Memphis, Tenn., on Tuesday, May 18, 2021.  Behind Lee is Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, left. The two governors were in town to discuss the I-40 bridge closure and infrastructure needs.

“You have to take comfort and have confidence in the fact that this defect was discovered," Hutchinson said. "It was discovered through an inspection and immediate action was taken, and the highest priority is the safety of the public. That in itself should speak volumes to the safety of our bridges.”

The governors touched briefly on federal funding, with Hutchinson thanking federal partners and Lee saying more federal dollars ought to be spent on roads and bridges. 

American Rescue Plan funds are prohibited from being spent on road, highway or bridge infrastructure, Lee said. Currently, the American Rescue Plan designates $182 million to Shelby County and $161 million to the City of Memphis. 

The American Jobs Plan would spend an estimated $2 trillion with about $115 billion dedicated to roads and bridges. However, President Joe Biden has signaled that he may be willing to offer a trimmed-down bill focused on traditional infrastructure to appeal to Republicans followed by a more robust proposal, according to USA Today.

"What we need is federal funding from the federal government that is focused on roads and bridges," Lee said. “I would continue to say that as Congress grapples with what the meaning of infrastructure is, we know clearly what the meaning is, and it’s roads and bridges, and that’s when the federal dollars that are coming to our states, those dollars should come with the flexibility to spend on the infrastructure of roads and bridges across the country.”

Hutchinson described the bridge as a "critical link" for Arkansas, saying the closure showed how dependent the state is on the flow of commerce.

"We want to get it right," Hutchinson said. "We want to get it back in operation, and it certainly illustrates the importance of our infrastructure here in the United States, the investment that’s needed and our mutual commitment.”

There is no update as to the timeline for when the bridge will reopen to traffic, said Clay Bright, Tennessee commissioner of transportation, who also attended the news conference. 

“It could be several months, easily," Bright said. "They’re working through the details for phase 1 and phase 2.”

Tennessee Department of Transportation employees will head to Bowling Green, Kentucky, to pick up roughly 18,000 pounds of steel plates from Stupp Bridge Co. once the plates are completed Wednesday or Thursday, Bright said. Phase 2 will enable them to span the fracture, cutting out the fractured section and replacing it with brand new materials. 

Bright said workers also spent part of Tuesday re-inspecting the I-55 bridge out of an abundance of caution after a request from ARDOT. Two drone teams began working on the bridge at 11 a.m. Tuesday, he said. 

“Again, 55 is safe," he said. "We’re just doing this out of an overabundance (of caution) and a lot of questions we’re getting about I-40.”

Katherine Burgess covers county government and religion. She can be reached at katherine.burgess@commercialappeal.com, 901-529-2799 or followed on Twitter @kathsburgess.