Date: Friday, June 18th, 2021
Source: The Wall Street Journal
MEMPHIS, Tenn.—An emergency closure of the Interstate-40 bridge across the Mississippi River has jammed traffic for over a month, denting companies’ bottom lines, hampering the region’s economic recovery from the pandemic and further straining an already stretched national supply chain.
The six-lane bridge linking Tennessee and Arkansas helps make Memphis a critical U.S. distribution hub, along with the headquarters of FedEx Corp. , a large port and five major freight railroads. It has been closed since May 11, when a contractor for the Arkansas Transportation Department spotted a large crack in a steel support beam that officials said put the span in jeopardy of failing.
Typically, about 40,000 cars and trucks a day would cross the bridge, a double-arch steel structure that is almost 2 miles long.
The bridge’s deficiencies highlight the aging of U.S. infrastructure amid a debate in Washington over a multibillion-dollar funding package. Despite disagreements between Republicans and Democrats over the scope and funding sources for the legislative package, bipartisan support has emerged for boosting federal spending on roads and bridges.
The Arkansas DOT, which is responsible for inspecting the bridge, said inspections in 2019 and 2020 missed the crack, and it since has fired the statewide bridge inspector. Repair work on the nearly 50-year-old bridge will stretch through at least July, according to the Tennessee Transportation Department, which handles repairs and maintenance. The two states are sharing the cost of repairs, officials said.
Residents, companies and local officials are bracing for a rough summer. Cars and trucks are forced to squeeze onto Interstate 55’s four-lane bridge—the only other vehicle route crossing the Mississippi in the area.
Congestion was so bad one recent weekday that the drive from West Memphis, Ark., to Memphis—usually about 10 minutes long—took more than three hours. Motorists seeking shortcuts clogged West Memphis’s main thoroughfare and some residential side streets.
Clifton Rose, who drives a truck for multistate freight hauler Ozark Motor Lines Inc., said his big rig moved just five miles in four hours that day in “madhouse” traffic, which officials said was worsened by storms, accidents and work to convert a shoulder to a travel lane.
“This has completely crippled our city in so many different ways, from just the quality of life to the economic impact,” said West Memphis Mayor Marco McClendon.
Sales at a Barton’s kitchen and bath showroom in West Memphis were down 45% in the past month from a year earlier. “You cannot get in and out of [the] parking lot with traffic the way it is,” said general manager Jason Long.
Dentist Brian Rhoads says the rate of reschedulings and no-shows at his practice has doubled to around 40%. Revenue at Southland Casino, the city’s biggest employer, fell nearly a third in May compared with March and April, state figures show.
In Memphis, the Majestic Grille’s regulars from Arkansas aren’t driving over for dinner. “They’re calling and saying, ‘We’re sorry, we’re just not going to do it,’ ” said Patrick Reilly, who co-owns the 250-seat downtown restaurant.
Transportation officials in both states said they are acutely aware of the havoc and have had some success speeding up the flow of I-55 by converting shoulders to travel lanes and reducing the number of merge areas.
“It’s a little bit like performing brain surgery,” said Brad Freeze, director of the Tennessee DOT’s traffic operations division.”This is such a critical route right now.”
Nationwide, roughly 45,000 bridges are in poor condition, about 7% of the total, according to an analysis of federal data by the trade group American Road and Transportation Builders Association. That means a key structural element—the deck, superstructure, substructure or culverts—is rated in poor or worse condition.
Before the crack’s discovery, the I-40 bridge was last fully inspected in September 2020 and received an overall rating of 6 on a scale of 0 to 9, Arkansas officials say. That would be considered satisfactory condition on the National Bridge Inventory’s rating scale.
Since the shutdown, average weekday speeds heading east on the I-55 bridge have hovered around 20 miles per hour between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m., compared with close to 50 mph before, according to transportation analytics firm Inrix.
Shannon Samples Newton, president of the Arkansas Trucking Association, said the delays are costing the U.S. trucking industry an estimated $2 million a day.
“Short of opening the bridge, there really is not anything that can be done,” she said. “There is no quick fix.”
Drivers are often paid by the mile, so congestion hits their wallets, said Jason Higginbotham, finance chief at Ozark. Hiring drivers was already a challenge and is even harder now, he said.
The bridge closure has forced FedEx to make changes, including addressing employee commute delays and adding drivers, a spokeswoman said. Federal regulations require truckers to take a 10-hour break after 11 hours behind the wheel.
The bridge closure came as many states lifted Covid-19 pandemic-related restrictions and local economies began recovering. With the U.S. supply chain already under stress, “No one needed the added cost, the added delay, that this is putting into the system,” said Reid Dulberger, president and chief executive of the economic development agency for Memphis and Shelby County.
West Memphis Mayor McClendon said he is fielding calls from frustrated residents and assuring them he is doing all he can. He said he stays in frequent contact with state officials, has blocked some side streets to through-traffic and even personally directed traffic.
While out surveying congestion recently, he met some exasperated people. Debra Lewis’s normally quiet neighborhood was packed with lines of cars and trucks looking for a path to I-55. She said her 10-minute drive home from work had taken two hours.
“You can’t get through,” she said.