Memphis bridge reopening unclear as governor criticizes federal funding plans

By: - May 18, 2021 4:55 pm
A police car blocks entrance to the Hernando DeSoto Bridge over the Mississippi River in Memphis after a substantial crack was found in it May 11. (Photo: Karen Pulfer Focht)

Memphis Police vehicles. (Photo by Karen Pulfer Focht )

Gov. Bill Lee took another shot Tuesday at billions of dollars in COVID-19 federal funding, saying the state should have the flexibility to use that money on roads and bridges as officials said they are expediting work on the cracked I-40 beam that forced the shutdown of Hernando DeSoto Bridge. 

Asked about his criticism of President Joe Biden’s relief packages that are providing billions to state governments to rebound from the pandemic, Lee noted the American Recovery Plan “expressly prohibits” using the federal money on road and bridges and added that only 5.6% of the $2 trillion American Jobs Plan, an infrastructure package, goes toward roads and bridges. 

“So I would continue to say 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 where the federal dollars that are coming to our states, those dollars should come with the flexibility to spend on our infrastructure of roads and bridges across the country,” Lee said.

Hernando DeSoto Bridge. (Photo: Tennessee Department of Transportation)
Hernando DeSoto Bridge. (Photo: Tennessee Department of Transportation)

Even though the infrastructure plan still provides $112 billion for roads and bridges, the governor has been critical of both funding packages, contending they are not based on population and, instead, are rewarding states that did a poor job of handling the pandemic.

A Tuesday statement from the Governor’s Office said the American Recovery Plan designates $182 million to Shelby County and $161 million to the city of Memphis. 

Meanwhile, officials said it could take months to reopen the bridge spanning the Mississippi River between Memphis and Arkansas after it shut down May 11 because of the crack discovered in an important beam.

“You have to take comfort and have confidence in the fact this defect was discovered. It was discovered in an inspection and immediate action was taken,” said Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who joined Tennessee officials in a Memphis press conference Tuesday to discuss the damage and efforts to repair it.

Officials from both states emphasized they want to expedite the repair project without affecting safety.

The Tennessee Department of Transportation on Monday selected Kiewit Infrastructure Group for emergency repair of the crack in the beam with work expected to start as early as Wednesday. The selection was based on qualifications, experience and availability of personnel and equipment. No cost for the contract has been set.

State Rep. Dwayne Thompson, a Cordova Democrat who serves on the House Transportation Committee, said Tuesday he’s glad the Transportation Department is working quickly with the governor’s support.

“Memphis is a transportation city,” whether rail, roads, air or water, Thompson said. “We’re right in the top five of all those things, and they’re all interconnected, too, so this is a major deal right here with the bridge closure.”

Thompson shrugged off the Republican governor’s shot at the Biden Administration’s federal funding packages, pointing out infrastructure should not be a partisan issue. He noted the state will have $1.55 billion in its rainy day fund next fiscal year to handle such a project.

The Transportation Department does not have a reserve fund, but because it doesn’t borrow money for projects, it has the ability to shift resources to deal with emergency situations. With a $2.3 billion budget, it can manage most disasters and emergencies and report to the governor and General Assembly for accountability, according to Deputy Commissioner Paul Degges’ office.

Federal funding also could be used for the repairs, Thompson said. He pointed out Congressman Steve Cohen has been working to designate the Hernando DeSoto Bridges as one of the top 10 economic impact bridges in the nation, enabling federal money to be used to retrofit it against future damage and potential natural disasters such as an earthquake.

State Rep. Dwayne Thompson, D-Cordova, shrugged off Gov. Bill Lee’s criticism of the Biden Administration’s federal funding packages, noting Tennessee will have $1.55 billion in it’s rainy day fund that could be used for repairs.  

In addition, Thompson said he and fellow Rep. Joe Towns, D-Memphis, are working toward securing a third Mississippi River bridge in Memphis, a complicated matter that would take years to resolve. Thompson suggested such a bridge could connect I-40 and I-69.

Meanwhile, repair on the Hernando DeSoto Bridge is to be done in two phases, starting with installation of steel plates on each side of the fractured beam. Both phases must be completed before traffic can resume on the bridge, according to TDOT.

The project’s first phase is to strengthen damaged steel plates and provide enough stability for crews to install equipment for permanent replacement of the damaged parts and continue bridge inspections.

Stupp Bridge Co. of Bowling Green, Kentucky, has been hired to fabricate new steel plates, weighing some 18,000 pounds. The plates are to be completed Wednesday and picked up by TDOT crews to be transported to Memphis for installation.

Phase two calls for removing and replacing the damaged beam and reopening the bridge to traffic.

The mechanical fracture was found during a routine inspection. But an inspector with the Arkansas Department of Transportation was fired, according to reports, for failing to report the crack after drone footage showed it had been there for two years. Arkansas officials referred the matter to federal investigators for possible criminal prosecution.

The bridge was shut down immediately and traffic rerouted. Barges on the Mississippi were stopped from traveling under the bridge, as well, but resumed movement down the river late last week after transportation officials determined waterway traffic was safe.

Tennessee transportation Commissioner Clay Bright said the state also will do a complete safety check of the 70-year-old I-55 bridge over the Mississippi to make sure it is structurally sound. A contractor is to be hired for the review.

Acknowledging the bridge shutdown will affect commerce, Bright said the department is giving freight haulers advance warning so they can plan different routes. Memphis-to-Arkansas traffic is taking I-55.

Hutchinson also said Arkansas is alerting the Trucking Association and preparing to post signs to let the general public know about slow-downs at the bridge to Memphis.


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Sam Stockard
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state's best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial from the Tennessee Press Association.