MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg travels to Tennessee on Thursday to learn how the closure of the Interstate 40 bridge connecting that state and Arkansas has affected freight movement since it was shut down more than three weeks ago when a crack was found in the span.
Buttigieg was set to meet with officials at a FedEx Corp. facility in Memphis before a planned tour of the Hernando De Soto bridge and a news conference later Thursday. Shipping giant FedEx operates its massive fleet of airplanes and trucks out of its headquarters in Memphis, which has seen road traffic problems since the I-40 bridge spanning the Mississippi River was closed and vehicles were diverted to the nearby Interstate 55 bridge.
When the 47-year-old, six-lane I-40 bridge is open, about 50,000 vehicles typically travel across it, with about a quarter of those being commercial trucks, Tennessee transportation officials say.
The visit comes as President Joe Biden is pushing for a major infrastructure package, while Republican senators want a more modest investment in roads, highways and other traditional public works projects. Among those expected to attend the meeting at FedEx is U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican, and U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, a Memphis Democrat.
The I-40 bridge connecting Memphis and the Arkansas city of West Memphis was shut down May 11 after inspectors found a crack in one of two 900-foot (275-meter) horizontal steel beams that are critical for the bridge’s structural integrity. Inspectors looking at the four-lane, 71-year-old I-55 bridge have found no problems in the span so far as they assess its long-term ability to handle increased road traffic.
A timetable for the I-40 bridge’s reopening has not been established, and officials have said the bridge could be closed for months. Engineers have finished the first step of the repair project, which involved installing steel plates on each side of the fractured beam and building a platform to hold heavy equipment necessary for the permanent repairs.
The second step, which includes of a detailed inspection of the bridge’s trusses and removing and replacing the damaged piece of the beam, is ongoing.
An Arkansas inspector was fired for missing the crack in the bridge’s 2019 and 2020 inspections. Photos taken by a Mississippi River kayaker in 2016 appear to show the fracture, raising questions about how early it first appeared.
In a letter to Biden days after the bridge’s closure, Republican U.S. Sen. Bill Hagerty called for an “urgent, all-hands” approach to the shutdown. Hagerty said the shutdown is “affecting the lives and livelihoods of real people right now.”