MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) Transportation officials Aug. 27 reopened Interstate 40 across the Mississippi River between Memphis and Arkansas after engineers closed a bridge nine hours earlier because of problems with a support pier.
Engineers closed a span west of the landmark Hernando DeSoto Bridge just after morning rush hour Aug. 27 after finding a pier near the river had settled 3.5 in. overnight. Traffic was diverted onto the Interstate 55 bridge, which parallels I-40 just to the south.
Tennessee Department of Transportation spokeswoman Pamela Marshall said workers have diverted traffic onto a section of the roadway that has been undergoing improvements.
Traffic on I-55 was surprisingly calm as I-40 was closed — even slower than usual —said managers of several West Memphis, Ark., truck stops near where I-55 and I-40 diverge before crossing the Mississippi River en route to Memphis.
“Actually, our business has slowed because of it,” said John Adams, manager of the Pilot Travel Center store. “A lot of people are trying to get around it.”
Part of the problem, Marshall said, was that there are no logical alternative routes to crossing the Mississippi at Memphis other than the I-55 bridge, which carries 44,700 vehicles daily. The partially closed Hernando DeSoto Bridge was carrying 35,600 vehicles per day.
The nearest bridge crossings outside the Memphis area are at Helena, Ark., about 50 mi. south or near Dyersburg, 75 mi. north.
Almost 10,000 Arkansans commuted daily to Memphis, according to 2000 Census figures.
TDOT has been making improvements to the bridge as part of a state highway project to improve bridges to make them safer in case of earthquakes. The New Madrid fault runs through the area.
Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department spokesman Randy Ort said the problem was likely caused by additional pilings being driven near the existing span in an effort to improve the bridge’s stability. Half of the bridge was open to traffic while crews worked beneath the other side.
“The settling was in the columns still under traffic, due to the construction adjacent to it,” Ort said. Workers had started driving pilings that are much longer than the existing bridge supports.
After the pier settled, drivers would have felt a 3.5-in. drop over a 100-ft. length — barely perceptible, Ort said. “At the most, a motorist might detect a dip.”
Upriver at Minneapolis, the eight-lane I-35W bridge collapsed Aug. 1, killing 13 people. The bridge was undergoing repairs when it buckled during the evening rush hour. Dozens of cars plummeted more than 60 feet into the Mississippi River, some falling on top one of another.
Marshall said she’s not sure that the Minneapolis bridge collapse played a role in the engineers’ decision to close the I-40 bridge.
“It is a bold stance, considering how busy these bridges are, just to shut them down,” she said. “It is at the front of everybody’s mind. Let’s learn from other situations.”