Cracks in The Foundation

By: Owen Hewitt, TN

On May 11, a crack was found in the foundation of the Hernando De Soto bridge during a routine inspection. The crack led to the complete closure of the bridge to traffic, and caused a backlog of ships, as passing under the bridge was also deemed unsafe. 

The bridge spans the Mississippi River between Memphis, Tennessee and West Memphis, Arkansas and sees an estimated 45,000 vehicles a day, with a quarter of that number being commercial vehicles according to the Tennessee Department of Transportation. An estimated 350 billion dollars of goods cross the bridge annually. The closing of the bridge caused all trucks and cars using Interstate 40 – which goes from California to North Carolina – to reroute: which in turn caused delays in many different supply chains.

According to CNN, at one point more than 700 barges were waiting to travel under the bridge. The space under the bridge has since been opened to naval travel, but the bridge itself remains closed – and the timetable for its reopening is yet to be established. 

The crack in the bridge comes as debates over infrastructure take the national stage. Infrastructure, a central part of President Biden’s election platform, has been pushed by the administration since the President’s early days in office. Currently, a large package of infrastructure-related legislation is being debated in the senate, where it faces challenges from Republicans and some moderate Democrats who say the bill is too broad, expanding the definition of infrastructure outside of its original boundaries. 

Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg visited Memphis in early June to inspect the crack in the bridge, as well as push the President’s message about the importance of updating the nation’s motorways proactively so emergency shutdowns like the one in Memphis can be avoided.

But as legislators on Capitol Hill debate over a national infrastructure plan, politicians and administrators in Tennessee are tasked with coming up with a solution to alleviate the stress now placed on the older bridge in Memphis, constructed in 1949. While some proposals center around mending the steel fracture, which according to private drone footage may have been present since 2016, others suggest that a better solution would involve constructing an entirely new bridge. 

The idea of a third bridge is not novel to the city of Memphis, as an extra crossing to alleviate some of the pressure on the city’s newer bridge has been suggested frequently in both local and statewide legislatures. But now, as one of the city’s main commercial arteries has failed, the once fringe idea of a third bridge has begun to pick up steam in the city. 

Third bridge or not, it’s estimated that the crack in the Hernando De Soto bridge may take anywhere from six months to three years to fix. In that time it remains to be seen if the foundation of the nation’s infrastructure suffers any further fractures.