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Truck driver Clifton Hughey heard talk all his life about a potential third highway bridge to cross the Mississippi River near Memphis.
But with one of the two interstate spans here closed after inspectors discovered a critical crack, Hughey’s once thirty-minute trip to haul goods at a nearby train terminal is now a grinding two- or three-hour detour.
“They’ve been talking about it since I was little,” Hughey told CNN, standing next to his shiny red Peterbilt. Haulers like Hughey are paid by the mile, not the hour. “We look at working five days a week but you’re only getting paid for three because of the bridge out.”
Hughey drives one of the estimated 60,000 vehicles that until last month crossed the Interstate 40 Hernando DeSoto Bridge between Tennessee and Arkansas every single day. That traffic across what locals call the “New Bridge” has detoured onto the nearby and already congested “Old Bridge” – a relic first opened in 1949 that now is the sole backbone of this critical logistics hub.
“The New Bridge,” built in the 1970s, is hardly the only bridge in disrepair in the US. The American Society of Civil Engineers says more than 46,000 bridges nationwide – carrying 178 million vehicles daily – are structurally deficient, rated as poor.
The price tag to fix the country’s bridge repair backlog is $125 billion, ASCE says. And while the Biden administration and congressional Republicans spar over the size and priorities of an infrastructure bill, those bridges are rusting and corroding.
Inspecting the I-40 bridge in Memphis last week, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told CNN that this project shows how “sometimes a specific piece of infrastructure in one place is actually a national concern.”
The trails through Memphis are critical to both the region and the entire US economy, local officials say.
They point out the interstate highways make it the third-busiest trucking route, moving $350 billion of goods annually. Barge arrivals on the Mississippi River to the International Port of Memphis make it the fifth-largest inland port. Only one other city – Chicago – is also connected to five of the largest freight railroads. And Memphis International Airport is the FedEx Superhub, making it the world’s busiest airport for air cargo.
“This country needs to realize that from a transportation logistics perspective, this country doesn’t work without Memphis, Tennessee,” said logistics executive Bill Dunavant, whose firm Dunavant Enterprises has been hauling goods for generations, adding that the need for action is particularly urgent now.
In the CNN interview on the I-40 bridge, Buttigieg points to it as an example of the “hard infrastructure” where he hopes lawmakers can find consensus, even as they continue to squabble over the broader definition of infrastructure. GOP negotiators on Capitol Hill have proposed significantly smaller plans than the Biden administration’s ask, which includes money for at-home caregiving and to renovate and retrofit homes.
Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee said after meeting with Buttigieg in Memphis that she wants to see the I-40 bridge back in service “safely and quickly.”
That’s a priority Buttigieg shares. A failure of projects like the I-40 bridge, he noted, “would completely disrupt life in this case for the whole region and sometimes for the whole country.”
A critical crack
The acute issue with the I-40 bridge is a crack in a 900 foot steel beam, discovered during a May inspection. The issue was so serious that inspectors called 911 and told dispatchers to close the bridge immediately.
The bridge is currently closed to traffic in both directions, and it is unclear when it will reopen.
“It’s so simple and so shocking to see a literal split in a steel beam on which millions of pounds of pressure and countless thousands of lives depend,” Buttigieg said.
That tragedy struck in 2007 a few hundred miles north. Another interstate bridge over the Mississippi River – an I-35 span in Minneapolis – collapsed, killing 13 people and injuring 145. Investigators attributed the failure to a design issue and not corrosion and cracks in the structure.
In its 2021 report card, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave US bridges a C, only slightly better than the country’s overall infrastructure rating of C-. It says 21,000 bridges nationwide are at risk of a potential disaster in extreme weather, possibly from water flowing over the surface or washing out the foundation.
Other common issues with bridges, ASCE former president Andy Herrmann said, are rust and flaking metal on steel beams and girders, and water leaking through the deck.
The costs to repair continually degrading bridges is mounting, and skyrocketing prices for steel and other supplies add to the bill. Herrmann said poor infrastructure is hitting Americans in the wallet and pocketbook daily.
“It’s costing us money to repair our cars from damaged roads and bridges,” he told CNN in an interview. “It’s costing us money (on time) wasted in traffic – costing us money on gasoline that we have to spend because we’re just sitting wasting it idling.”
Herrmann said he is watching the politics in Washington with interest.
“I’m a little hopeful this time, but I’ve been through infrastructure weeks in the past and I’m hoping this time we’re actually going to make the investment,” he said.
In Memphis, officials are watching, too. In the trucking world, Dunavant and Hughey say the I-40 bridge closure shows the time is ripe for a third span there.
“We’re sitting here with the crisis of a bridge that could have been avoided years ago,” Hughey said.