Bridges are everyday parts of our lives that we often take for granted, but when one goes down, we notice their significant impact. That is where this episode of Highway See begins. On May 11, 2021, a routine inspection of the Hernando de Soto Bridge, which spans the mighty Mississippi River in Memphis, Tennessee, revealed a fracture in an integral part of the bridge’s construction. All traffic on the bridge, and below the bridge, was brought to an immediate halt. Both I-40 and the Mississippi River, crucial veins in commerce and economic traffic, were severed. For this riveting episode of Highway See we take the deep dive into the drama of the “Memphis Bridge.”
From the discovery of the fracture, to the phenomenal team of experts who solved the issue of the repair, to the vastly successful reopening of the bridge, we cover it all. Tune into this episode for the whole story!
On this Special Episode, host Chris Hill guides us through the crucial tale:
Chris: Welcome to Highway See, the podcast that explores the history of Tennessee’s road infrastructure, and why building better roads benefits us all.
Chris: Imagine if the doctor said you had a complete blockage of two major arteries. That’s what happened to the United States when a routine inspection discovered a fracture in the I-40 bridge crossing the Mississippi River between Memphis, Tennessee, and Arkansas. The Hernando de Soto Bridge is named after the Spanish conquistador who, in 1541, was perhaps the first European to lay eyes on what is now Memphis. Almost two miles long and high above the Mississippi River, the bridge carries Interstate 40, one of the primary arteries of the USA, connecting the east to the west. Over it travel people and freight totaling about 29,000 vehicles every day.
Below that bridge flows the mighty Mississippi. On its muddy water move 500 million tons of cargo each year, to include 60% of all grain exported from the United States. The Hernando de Soto Bridge is sometimes called the “New Bridge” It’s also known as the “M Bridge” or the “Big M Bridge” because of the shape of its two suspension arches. It’s jointly owned by the Arkansas Department of Transportation and the Tennessee Department of Transportation. These departments of state government are referred to as ARDOT and TDOT, respectively.
May 11, 2021, the US and particularly Memphis, Tennessee, were in the emergency room. Lives could have been in jeopardy and all that traffic—land and water—had to be stopped as soon as possible, and no one knew for how long. That fateful day, personnel from the Michael Baker International Engineering Consulting firm were making routine inspections on the bridge on behalf of ARDOT.
911 Operator: 911 Emergency. Do you need police, fire, or ambulance?
Inspector 1: I am doing a bridge inspection here on the I-40 Mississippi River bridge and we just found a supercritical finding that needs traffic shut down in both directions on the I-40 Mississippi River bridge. I’ve already called and talked to the ARDOT people and they’re working on it, but we need to get people off the bridge as soon as possible in both directions.
Chris: The inspectors had discovered a fracture. It was a critical discovery. The stability of the Hernando de Soto Bridge was uncertain at best, and everyone and everything on, under, around, or headed to it could have been in peril. Immediate action was taken to shut the bridge down and remove all traffic.
The Tennessee Highway Patrol raced to get vehicle traffic off the compromised structure. A growing line of barges was forced to stop and wait up and down the river.
On this episode of Highway See, we’ll explore the riveting tale of the crisis on the Memphis Bridge, from the drama of the initial discovery, to detecting the cause, to the final repair leaving it better than before, to the indispensable lessons learned. Thankfully, it’s the story of a process that worked. The regular inspection discovered a serious threat before any incidents occurred, and people all around the nation quickly banded together to develop a solution. We’ve talked with the professionals who were intimately involved in this project, and we get their inside perspective on this incredible story in Tennessee’s highway history.
When the fracture was discovered, it didn’t take long for word to get around, and crucial members of Tennessee government were alerted to include the Commissioner of Transportation Clay Bright. He remembers receiving the urgent call.
Commissioner Bright: I got a call from Paul Degges at about two o’clock on Tuesday, the 11th of May, and he called just to let me know what had happened: We were closing the bridge down; we were having conversations with Arkansas DOT at the time; Michael Baker was out there doing a bridge inspection for the upper arches and Fred, with Michael Baker, had looked over at the side of it at one of the two tension beams and saw that we had a very large fracture that he could see through. He immediately called 911, and I think within an hour, they had the bridge closed.
Chris: If this discovery during an inspection was significant enough to shut down two of the most vital land and water traffic corridors in the nation, what exactly had gone wrong?
Commissioner Bright: Going from pile to pile at the bottom, underneath the bridge decking, there’s two box beams. They’re basically two feet by two feet box beams on either side of the bridge and they are tension members. They’re getting pulled on all the time, and that’s the way the engineers designed that system. So, think of it this way, you only have two members. And [sigh] so, it’s called fracture critical. And fracture critical means that if one member fails, the bridge goes in the water.
Think about it this way. If you’re a 200 pound man, and you’re holding on to two ropes that hold up a hundred pounds, and one of those ropes gets cut, you’re probably going in the water, and that was how close we were on this project. And the member that was fractured, of that two by two pece, the top piece was completely fractured through and the side piece was completely fractured through, in part, I think, of the bottom piece. So, I would say over 50% of that member was compromised.
Chris: The situation was dire. Not only was the vehicle traffic across the bridge interrupted, but so was barge traffic, and this was no small matter because the flow of both are crucial, not only to Tennessee, but national and even international economics. Interstate 40 runs 2,555 miles across the US from the coast of North Carolina to Barstow, California. Even a small delay has significant repercussions for the flow of commercial traffic along the roadway. The holdup of barge traffic had perhaps greater consequences given that the Mississippi River and its watershed are the lifeblood for the industrial and agricultural economy in the United States.
Commissioner Bright: So, that was important for us as far as moving certain commodities up and down the river. And they said really, within a day, we were going to start impacting international trade because of the stoppage on the river, so that just tells you, really, how much freight traffic goes up and down the river each and every day.
Chris: The flow of traffic had to be restored and quickly. It wasn’t long until nearly 1000 barges backed up, waiting for clearance to continue up or down the river. Highway traffic now backed up for miles on both the Arkansas and Tennessee sides of the river. Alternative routes had to be determined for land traffic, and that was already beginning to take place. As the traffic slowdown put a great strain on people and industry, the costs began adding up quickly. Commissioner Bright explains.
Commissioner Bright: If you’re in a queue that backs up eight or ten miles and it takes you 90 minutes, I know what you’re going to feel like, especially when you get to work. You know, we were having conversations with the hospital, the healthcare organizations because they have a lot of people on the other side of the bridge and they were concerned about how they’re getting their people to work and how early they’re having to leave, and when you have somebody that’s got to leave 90 minutes ahead of time sooner than what they’re used to, then they get to work and work a long shift, and then they got to go back home and fight that, that was in the back of all our minds the whole way through is how can we get the bridge open as soon as possible? Because we knew it was a huge impact to people getting to work. And $2.4 million dollars a day in impact to the freight industry because they only had one bridge across the Mississippi, and as we made some retrofits to the bridge, it dropped down to about a million dollars a day.
Chris: Nearly one hundred percent of the traffic from the shutdown I-40 bridge detoured to I-55 onto the Memphis and Arkansas Bridge. Referred to by some locals as the “Old Bridge” because its construction predates the I-40 Hernando de Soto Bridge. The I-55 bridge average daily traffic grew from about 49,000 vehicles to 78,000. This meant an additional round of inspections and service on the remaining bridge to be certain it was up to the task and to ensure the delays, while sometimes extended, were as short as possible. The I-55 bridge was now the only bridge in the region in service for interstate traffic crossing the Mississippi River.
Meanwhile, freight on the Mississippi River was continuing to back up in both directions. For the river traffic to resume, the de Soto Bridge had to be determined to be stable, posing no danger to those on the water below. Alongside Commissioner Bright, Ted Kniazewycz, Director of the Tennessee Department of Transportation Structures Division, began to build a multifaceted expert team that would work together across governments and the private sector. As a reminder, the bridge’s ownership is shared between the states of Tennessee and Arkansas. Tennessee is responsible for the contract maintenance and repair, while Arkansas was responsible for inspections. So, when it came to repair, Ted played a pivotal role in quickly gathering the best team possible for this project. Ted functioned as the bridge owner’s point of accountability, managing all aspects of the repair.
Ted: I’m Ted Kniazewycz, I’m the Director of Structures at TDOT. I’ve been in that position since 2017. Prior to that, I actually started with the department in 1985, fresh out of school, in the structures division, where I worked designing bridges. I saw the email that said there was a critical finding on the bridge, and I knew what that meant because a critical finding is something we’ll find and we’ll shut a bridge down. And I’ve dealt with bridge issues before where a truck has hit a bridge, maybe knocked a beam out or something like that, even on the interstate in the downtown loop of Nashville, where we have a lot of traffic, a lot more than is in Memphis, but an issue like on a bridge this big is much grander than something of a truck hitting it.
So, when I saw that email and got on the call, it was, like, 30 minutes after the notification was sent to the department. We were just in the gathering information mode. So, we talked for about ten minutes just trying to find out what they had seen, where it was, and how bad it was. We didn’t have pictures or anything at this time. So, we assumed the worst, which was a good assumption as it turned out.
Chris: At the same time that information and personnel were being gathered, reopening the Mississippi river traffic was a high priority. The US Coast Guard dictates and controls all commercial boat traffic up and down the Mississippi, which meant they were involved from the start. As Commissioner Bright tells us…
Commissioner Bright: During that first week, from Tuesday afternoon until Friday morning, through our engineering process, we determined the bridge was safe as is. We’d taken all the traffic off the bridge. It wasn’t going anywhere. So, we felt like it was safe to open it up for barge traffic. It was not our decision to open up the barge traffic on the river, that was US Coast Guard, so we were having daily conversations with them, but we gave them the information and what we thought as far as the safety of the bridge as it stood at the time.
And they made the decision Friday morning to go ahead and open up the barge traffic. So, between Tuesday afternoon and Friday morning, there was roughly a thousand barges that were stuck either heading south or heading north. Our Coast Guard opened it up for barge traffic that Friday morning and they had prioritized all the barges on the river going north and south to get the high priority barges moving first, and by Saturday afternoon, the barge traffic was basically cleared of the thousand barges.
Chris: As the river traffic problem was being resolved, the next step in assembling a team was concurrently underway: To find contractors in the private sector to assist with the repair of the fracture. Through a standard procurement process, TDOT solicited proposals from several well-qualified contractors, and Kiewit Construction was selected based on their experience and the approach shown in their proposal. Also onboard from the private sector were Michael Baker International Engineering and Consulting, in their ongoing role of inspection, and HNTB. Both are expansive national companies with long histories in transportation infrastructure.
Chris F: I’m Chris Frieberg. I worked for Kiewit Infrastructures, an area manager based out of Nashville, Tennessee. For the project, I led the construction effort of the repair of the de Soto Bridge there in Memphis.
Chris: With river traffic now back to normal and their expert multi-state team assembled, the next step was the development of a plan to get the bridge back up and running as soon as possible. Every day, the many parties charged with managing the crisis and developing the best solution had a minimum of three virtual conference calls. Chris Frieberg extols the highly renowned team that participated.
Chris F: I remember one particular Zoom call, and I had taken a snapshot [laugh] of this, but there was probably 20 faces on this call and these guys were talking in a technical level that was far superior to anything I could probably really comprehend. But very interesting to hear them talk about the specifics of the metallurgical properties of the material and what we could do to propagate the fracture itself, to keep it from continuing to fracture as we did construction. So, that world-class team of some of the probably brightest minds from across the country to help come up with a solution, TDOT and ARDOT both put their very best people forward. Commissioner Clay Bright was at the lead and TDOT was responsible for the execution of the repairs.
Chris: For everyone involved, these virtual conference calls were a touchstone in their day. Chris describes the nature of two of these daily calls he participated in.
Chris F: We would meet every morning. There was a nine o’clock call and that would have Ted Kniazewycz and all the design partners, and we called that the working group meeting. And so, that’s where we would bounce ideas off, we would look at where the design was currently, we would provide constructability reviews, HNTB would provide some input on design reviews. Michael Baker really led that design effort. So, that was every day at nine, that was a working group meeting.
Every day at four, we’d have another meeting that was sort of an agency update meeting. So, it was all the TDOT parties were involved, the Arkansas DOT—ARDOT—was involved, FHWA was involved in that call as well, really just an update status: This is where we are today. This is our plan for the rest of the day and tomorrow, and just make sure everybody was on the same page. And in addition to making decisions in a timely manner and everybody understanding where things were headed, that communication, almost constant communication, was probably another key to success of the project.
Chris: In addition to developing and implementing a solution for the closed interstate bridge, a third call dealt with managing its effects on daily travel. Here’s Commissioner Bright.
Commissioner Bright: Besides the two design calls every day, we had a traffic control call every afternoon with Memphis THP, our HELP trucks, our traffic management control center with Arkansas, what was happening in West Memphis. So, just to kind of understand the impact and what we could do to make things easier, and just trying to think through all that. We would look at that information each and every day, and you could look on our SmartWay app as far as actually seeing the backup into Arkansas, and also see the backup in Memphis as the travel was heading north on 55 coming across the bridge. So, that was part of what we tracked each and every day.
Chris: In a matter of days, and some long nights, engineers and highway officials had developed the plan.
Commissioner Bright: We had three different phases: Phase One, to get the bridge where it needed to be just to be able to work on the bridge; Phase Two was to fix the fracture; and then Phase Three was to go through a process of looking at the bridge top to bottom, just to see if there was any other issues with that bridge and how we would repair the bridge for long-term.
Chris: Here, Ted describes their initial assessments.
Ted: The fracture is located, about 75, 80 feet from the center pier in the river, on the north side of the bridge, the center peer towards Tennessee. Looking at it from the top, which is really all you could see, you know, it looked like a, not a nice clean, smooth fracture, but a kind of, an angular fracture. But you couldn’t really tell the rest of the story, how bad it was, from the top. We had some drone images that gave us the view from the side and the bottom.
Arkansas had some of their consultants out there getting measurements. You know, we were just gathering a whole lot of data. The thing that was obvious was it was not going to be a quick fix. It was not just a simple fracture that you could put a plate on it, bolt it back together because of the girder had twisted out of shape.
Chris: For the layman, the specifics of the fracture might be difficult to imagine. In short, the fracture occurred in a portion of the bridge known as the tension tie girder. The arch of the Hernando de Soto Bridge is 900 feet long, no small piece of steel to keep in place. The arch is connected on either end below the deck of the bridge by a tension tie girder which helps to hold the arch in its curved shape. Without the tie girder there, the arch wants to essentially flatten out.
Chris F: The fracture was on the north side of the bridge right at the center pier. So, the bridge looks like an M basically, and right at the center of the M if you went to that on the north side and then you went back towards Tennessee about 75 feet, that’s where the fracture would have occurred. So, it’s right near the center of the bridge on the north side. And then the fracture beam itself is down below that the top of the deck about 15 feet. So, part of the challenge was to repair the bridge, you have to access the bridge.
Chris: They had to determine where to work on the fracture from. It wasn’t an obvious choice.
Chris F: There’s sort of two schools of thought. One is you access everything from the water. So cranes, and man lifts, and everything on a barge on the Mississippi river, right in the middle of the main span of the river there. Or you could access it from the top. And the concern with access from the top is, of course, putting loads on a bridge that is compromised to some extent.
And part of our effort we were applying to the proposal was recommending options. So, the first option was to mobilize cranes and barges, and that mobilization time would have taken at least another week to get that equipment in place. As I was going through this, I talked to several of our what I would call subject matter experts that do a lot of this bridge repair, and a lot of this bridge repair, maybe it’s not emergency, but they do a lot of repair to bridges on the East Coast; they’ve got a lot of old big span steel bridges there. And so I talked to our East Coast folks. “Hey, how would you approach this? Would you go from the water? Would you go from the top?”
And they said, “Hey, you don’t want to be on the water. You can be from the top.” Most of the pieces, the plates that we’re assembling, they’re not huge. They’re not really heavy. So, you can use some different hoisting methods off the structure itself.
And so we proposed that as well as options for either one. And through the process, ultimately, that’s what we went with was accessing from the top of the bridge. We built a suspended walkway. You can see it in a lot of the pictures of the bridge, a suspended walkway, or work platform under the bridge. To access the work, we were able to drop the plates in from the top. Gave us really good control; it’s probably the safest way to do it from a worker safety standpoint.
Chris: In essence, the fracture, much like a broken bone, would be splinted for safety and stability until the permanent solution was in place.
Ted: The temporary fix, the Phase One as we called it, was installed to provide some stability to the structure itself, to keep it from—anything further happening. And then actually, to add a little bit more capacity back to what was sitting there.
Chris: With the first phase complete and the bridge stabilized and safe to work on, the team could then begin working toward the second phase: The permanent fix to carry I-40 across the Mississippi River. Of course, I-40 is a federal highway. Commissioner Bright recounts the involvement of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and others on the federal level as the project moved forward.
Commissioner Bright: As far as the conversations we had when Stephanie Pollack with Federal Highway came down and then Secretary Pete came after that, we had a lot of support from the federal government. Joey Hartman being on those design calls, being a part of the engineering process, giving any kind of approvals from the Federal Highway and what we were trying to do. We all had one goal and they were part of that team that made it a success.
Chris: Chris Frieberg of Kiewit Construction explains how the work progressed from Phase One: Stabilization, to Phase Two: Permanent fix.
Chris F: The work platform evolved. We got just enough to get to the fracture, to get Phase One done and then after Phase One was finished, we built that out further to encompass the full scope of Phase Two permanent fix components, strengthening plates we ultimately wound up installing. In order for those to really carry the load, we had to physically attach a post-tensioning system to the bridge and suck the bridge together, pull on the bridge from each end and push it to push the fracture together. And in doing that we took about 1.6 million pounds of force out of the broken member, put new strengthening plates, bolted new strengthening plates on the front and back of that for a length of about 150 feet, and then when we released that 1.6 million pounds, that tension went into the new strengthening plates.
And so now we have not just the original shape of the box carrying the load, but we get the original shape plus we have an additional two and a quarter inches of steel on the front and back. So, we now have double the strength of that box within that 150 feet.
Chris: Providing a permanent fix required adding some external tension forces to pull the bridge together in order to get the original shape back. During that process, the bridge itself had a thing or two to say.
Chris F: When you tension, you take everybody off the work platform. There’s nobody down there. You operate the hydraulic system from above. And so we’re going through this process: 20 percent and then we went to 50 percent. And we’re seeing the results, we’re almost there, and we decided let’s go to 60 percent.
And at 50 percent, I was standing by the hydraulic operator and I could hear a tink, tink sound. And he stopped and it was a hold point, so we physically just stopped everything, locked everything off, it’s got 50 percent tension, and then I would walk the work platform and look and just make sure everything looked okay, and nothing was, you know, out—we had a couple telltale areas that we would look to see how the bars are moving, is there anything rubbing on anything that might create a problem? As I’m hearing this tink, tink, tink, I’m thinking, “Man, something’s making me a little bit nervous here.”
So then, the next step was to go to 60 percent. So, as we went to 60 percent, you could hear a tink, tink, sound, a little bit more defined. And a couple other people heard it so I knew it wasn’t just me being [laugh] overly nervous. So, we, again, walked it. And as I was walking back, I asked—we had part of the monitoring team there, had some very experienced people, and I said, “Did you guys happen to hear this tink, tink sound?” And they said, “No.”
And one of the seasoned guys says, “Well, that’s good. If you’re hearing tink, tink, tink, that means the bridge is actually—we’re actually doing something. We’re moving something.” And so you’re standing on this bridge, right? This huge bridge we’re actually—we are physically moving it together. And, I felt a lot better after I heard his experience and his advice that would say, “Hey, we’re just moving the bridge. It’s not, maybe, something different happening.”
Chris: Despite what one might first think, the tink sound from the bridge was a good sign. As they pulled the bridge back into its original form—tinks and all—they were finally able to begin installing the permanent repair, by placing the specially selected plates over the fracture and then drilling multiple holes into each plate on each side, then bolting the plates to both sides of the damaged beam, creating what Commissioner Bright describes as having the appearance of a Band-Aid.
Commissioner Bright: It’s a pretty simple concept, and when you look at it from the side, it really does look like a Band-Aid because there’s a part across the fracture itself that did not have holes drilled through the existing member, so that was like the part of the Band-Aid that has the pad in it. And these plates were, they were at least two feet tall, they were 30-something feet long, and there were thousands of holes drilled. But they had to be cautious because you can’t drill too many holes in the existing member or you won’t have much of a member left. So, there’s a lot of engineering done on the spacing of those holes, how we put them in place. They drilled all those holes in place on the bridge, and, I think there were two and a quarter inches thick—so huge pieces—30-something feet long, sandwiched on each side of the member with bolts all the way through on each side of the fracture, bolted together.
Chris: Now that the fracture was fixed, the team then focused on the third and final phase: Inspections and testing of the other critical bridge members. Of all the tests the bridge went through, certainly the most advanced is the ultrasonic testing.
Ted: You’re doing this x-ray or testing of a weld. The phased array method that we used would be like instead of shooting a single beam, it’d be like shooting a thousand beams. And it goes in a radial direction so you’re not looking just straight ahead, but you’re looking in all directions. So, it picks up more data to allow you to see more defects if they exist.
Chris: The ultrasound tests were not just limited to the one weld where the fracture occurred.
Commissioner Bright: We did an ultrasound test on all the welds, both in the arch and the tension members in the deck across that whole bridge. So, we really wanted to look basically inside that weld to understand what was there, and that took us the month of June to get that done. And from that, in the Phase Three part of it as far as doing the complete inspection of the bridge, we found I think it was 17 locations where the engineers called them anomalies, but there were some areas that they had some sort of concern with. So, in those 17 locations, we also did a similar fix as the main fracture that we had. We basically plated each side of those welds that we had some sort of concern with what may or may not be there and took care of that. So, all that, fortunately, took the latter part of July to get that done.
Chris: Now, Commissioner Bright sheds light behind the scenes and on the beehive of activity happening elsewhere while the project was underway.
Commissioner Bright: So, ever since we started in May 11th, we really tried to do a very good job about communicating to the public on a daily basis where we were as far as where the fix was, where the materials were, where we were in fabrication, just to be completely transparent with the public on what we knew at the time and and how we were moving forward. And we were in some form or fashion, everybo—there was somebody working on this project 24/7 all the way through, whether it was the engineers coming up with a design, checking through shop drawings, fabrication over the weekends. Everybody had a do-whatever-it-takes attitude to get this done because they understood the impact to the public, as far as just the general public coming from Arkansas and those traveling also west out of Memphis and Arkansas, people trying to get to work in Memphis. The amount of freight traffic coming through that corridor from the east to the west was a huge impact and we understood what that meant to, to industry, to freight, and to people just trying to get to work. It was always heavy on our mind trying to get this bridge open as soon as possible.
Early on we told the public that we were going to be transparent. We are working towards an end of July, first of August date, but there were so many variables that we did not know of in that whole process, but that’s what we were working to, with a lot of unknowns. So, we felt really good by the time we got to the end of Phase Two, first part of July, we had the permanent fix in there. We had two different consultants. They crawled all over that bridge, and we took it really one step further because this bridge was built back in the seventies, and there was some concern, or unknowns, about the buttwelds that were done on all the different materials there.
So, instead of just doing a visual inspection, which is normally what is required in a bridge inspection, we did an ultrasound test on all the welds, both in the arch, in the tension members, and the deck across that whole bridge. So, all that fortunately took the latter part of July to get that done. It was because a lot of people worked around the clock because they knew how urgent it was and important it was for Memphis, for the state of Arkansas, for the state of Tennessee and really for the US is to open up that traffic going each way. We monitored truck and vehicle traffic each and every day that was traveling on 55. We had queues going into Arkansas that were eight and ten miles long every day.
And some of those queues or those back up in traffic would start sometime in the morning and would last to sometime in the evening, as far as people coming to work, and leaving work, and all the general traffic that goes across I-55. And I-55 was basically supporting their normal traffic plus all the traffic that was used to going across I-40. I wouldn’t say it doubled its capacity or amount of traffic flow each and every day, but it was pretty close to that.
One other thing in that process, as far as the side note, besides just tracking the traffic flow on there, and we did some things as far as working with the City of Memphis, working with THP, working with ARDOT in West Memphis, as far as traffic control and how we could get the flow going across that bridge better. We did some things as far as adding a lane coming off I-55 heading east as far as adding an additional lane so we could get traffic off that bridge sooner, which made a tremendous impact in traffic flow with that traffic that was heading east each day into Memphis. So, we were always trying to tweak things. We had HELP trucks on each side of the bridge, basically 24/7 because if you had an accident on 55, that would completely shut the bridge down. So, we always had staff there ready and willing to go to work if there was an incident so we could clear that incident as soon as possible and minimize any congestion that may happen from an incident on that.
Also we had a request from ARDOT. As I said, they’re responsible for the inspections on I-40. They were also responsible for the inspections on the 55 bridge. So, Director Tudor asked me to, if we would, look through their past inspection reports on 55. So, we had our bridge inspections, our engineers look through that report.
We also did a visual inspection of that whole bridge. We did it visually in the areas we could get close to. We used drones. We used the US Coast Guard to help us in that process. But really, from an overabundance of caution with the general public because that was a question, “Well, if this happened on I-40”—and everybody knew that the 55 bridge was 20 years older—“Is it safe to cross?”
So, we wanted to give the public that level of confidence that the bridge at 55 was safe. And there was a lot of conversation. “Well, you’ve got so much more traffic going on on that bridge. Is it safe? Can it stand the additional loading of all these truck traffic and the cars traveling on it each and every day?” We wanted the public to be assured that the bridge was safe for them to travel on and not to have any concerns about that.
And when I talked about Phase Three and going through the extra steps as far as the ultrasound testing of the welds and all that, we really wanted to be sure that the people in Memphis, the people in Arkansas had a high comfort level that when we opened that bridge up and we told them it was safe, we wanted them to feel sure that it was safe at that time.
Chris: But there was one final step.
Commissioner Bright: So, you’re asking the engineer that didn’t have anything to do with the original engineering of this bridge to sign his name to say it’s safe to the public. That’s a pretty big deal. And Michael Baker at the end of the day was the one that was going to have to sign off on that, so Ted did a good job as far as letting the engineers really work through the issues, vet everything, and to get to that comfort level. But if you’re that guy signing it, you’re not in a big hurry to sign, put your name on the dotted line. So, that was a process to get everybody to that comfort level, also knowing we got to open the bridge.
Chris: All in all, the three phases and extensive teamwork on the bridge proved extremely successful and the bridge was reopened in only 83 days. With the bridge fixed, functional, and with an extended useful life, it’s a shining example of what dedication and teamwork can make possible. For Commissioner Bright, the bridge inspection process deserves the credit. Federal highway regulations require that any bridges that cross over a road or river that bears vehicle traffic must be inspected every two years.
Commissioner Bright: The process did work. So, that was awesome. And we got in there and we fixed the bridge and we did what we were supposed to do. So, the process did work. I think what got everybody’s attention across the country, with every state DOT, is how important the bridge inspection process is.
And I guarantee, I bet everybody looked at their process internally just to make sure that they were doing it the way they needed to be doing it. What we didn’t have was a playbook. I don’t think this has really ever happened before, so as we went through that process and we were all working together, for us at TDOT, we were in uncharted waters. But when we heard about the fracture and shutting the bridge down, our thoughts were, “How soon can we get over there?” As I’ve mentioned the three phases; how do we make sure the bridge is safe as is, standing on its own with no traffic on there? What do we need to do? What’s the permanent fix? And how do we look at the overall bridge to make sure there are no other issues on that bridge that we need to address?
Chris: The Memphis Bridge can serve as a model for the country and as a stark reminder of the significance that bridges have in our daily lives.
Commissioner Bright: And we addressed all the issues that the inspectors came up with. Engineers solve problems and they all rose to the occasion working with our contractors and the bridge inspectors and all that, and just to see all that process and how well it worked, our game plan looks pretty strong.
Chris: Looking back, one aspect that really stands out is the exceptionalism of the multifaceted team that Commissioner Bright, Ted, and Chris were a part of. They each speak to the ability of our infrastructure and transportation officials and experts to put their heads together and quickly provide solutions to the potentially catastrophic situation.
Chris F: I think one thing that really struck me was, from a client perspective, it was very interesting to see how TDOT and ARDOT, what was guiding their decisions. And ultimately they were guided by the stewardship of their departments and the ability to be able to ensure to the traveling public the confidence that this bridge could be open and, be opened and be open for, you know, a hundred years to come. And so that was a lot of the decisions were made was on the type of repair, how it was implemented, even some of the construction loading means and methods, they were very thoughtful. They didn’t just haphazardly say, “Hey, just go fix it and get it open as fast as you can.” Let’s get a right solution for the long-term, for the, really, betterment of the bridge.
Ted: We’ve been working in a very unusual environment due to the pandemic. But I think what that did is give us all a new skill set in communications regardless of where you are. And so when an incident like this happens, our ability to communicate as a team—regardless of where we’re located, whether in Nashville, Memphis, Louisville, or Philadelphia, or Chicago where all of our teammates were—we’re able to seamlessly communicate. You know, we were thinking ahead to let’s fix everything we can, let’s make this a safer for the public. We did all kinds of things from cleaning drains and restriping the road, not just fixing the bridge. We took advantage of this opportunity and I think as a team we performed really well.
Commissioner Bright: Tennessee performs at a high level, and the strength of our team, we can do anything. You know, and we had an opportunity to show what we can do and we did it. But it involved a lot of people besides us, but we were happy to have control over what we did, repairing that bridge and we ran with it. So, proud of our team, for sure.
Chris: Overall, returning people and freight to the Hernando de Soto Bridge went smoothly and happened sooner than some might have expected. When we asked those involved why, they had one resounding answer.
Chris F: Heard this bridge was down, frankly, we just wanted to help. No other motivation other than we wanted to help. And we really probably didn’t understand fully what we were getting into [laugh] when we turned this proposal in. But the big takeaway is, right, we talked about teamwork, working together. You know, one of my biggest takeaways was just the pure dedication of the individuals. A lot of individuals gave up their summer vacations. They gave up a lot of weekends with their families.
This isn’t just on the construction side, it was on the design side, it was on the client side. People were very committed to get this bridge open as quickly as possible, and at the same time making sure it was done safely and no further damage to the bridge.
Ted: The entire team that was involved, they were very focused on the job at hand. They rolled up their sleeves and got the job done quickly. If there was a problem, they brought it to my attention where I could get the right people in the room or on a call and get an answer quickly. You know, I think everybody’s commitment and focus to the project deserves special commendations.
Chris: The total cost of repair—surprisingly low for a bridge of this size—was approximately $10 million and was split 50-50 between ARDOT and TDOT as the joint owners of the bridge. Commissioner Bright reflects further on the dedicated team effort credited with the project’s success.
Commissioner Bright: When you were on that call, you could not—and Arkansas was involved, too, along with federal highway—you really couldn’t tell who was who, in that call. Everybody rolled up their sleeves, they were throwing their thoughts out there, there wasn’t a big ego involved, everybody was solely focused on coming up with the decision. They all did a great—everybody did a really great job, really did. I was very thankful. We had some from out West, I think some from Colorado, some from New Mexico and those guys who’d really worked hard.
The engineers had all worked hard, but I really want to thank them. We were so thankful for how well that team worked together, as far as getting the construction done and just doing whatever it takes, working around the clock and getting the materials there. And just as I said before, everybody had such a great attitude about getting to that point.
Chris: And as for the bridge’s future, they had something to say about that too.
Ted: We, we deem it as a lifeline structure, mainly because of the seismic limits that exist in Memphis. We’ve spent a lot of money to make sure that if there was a major earthquake in Memphis, that this structure will perform and be standing and be in service after that event. This repair gets us to a better than we were. Seventy-five years is this kind of an analytical number that we use, a structure like this, well-maintained, can go much longer than that, for sure.
Commissioner Bright: There is a life expectancy for any bridge. Where we have the fixes it’s good for a long time. So, there is an ongoing conversation that’s been reignited as far as a replacement bridge for Memphis. It’s a larger conversation across the country, as far as our infrastructure. Infrastructure doesn’t last forever.
Ted: We really reinforced the section of the bridge. So, it’s not only as good as it was, it’s really better than it was.
Chris: In the course of the history of Tennessee highways, the chapter of the Hernando de Soto Bridge repair will undoubtedly be remembered as a momentous one and a resounding success.
Thanks again for listening to another episode of Highway See. We’ve learned a lot from the crisis on the Memphis Bridge. The thing to be most thankful for are the dedicated professionals who strive every day to keep our infrastructure functioning. Because as we’ve learned, they are ever more important in our daily lives, our communities, and our nation.
Before we wrap up, we have one more story featuring the very bridge that has been the star of this episode. It’s our great American road trip story and a young driver’s unexpected lesson on the Hernando de Soto Bridge. Here’s Susie Alcorn, creator and executive producer of Highway See to tell her story.
Susie: So, I had an important driving and life lesson, when I was 16, related to the Hernando de Soto bridge. My parents and I had been to visit one of my sisters, who at the time was living in Louisiana, and we were on our way home. I’d been asleep in the backseat. I naturally woke up and we stopped for gasoline. And my mother suggested when we were finished and about to get on the road, that it would be a good time for me to get more interstate driving experience.
And I said okay, if you think that’s what I should do, that’s what I’ll do. And it was only a short time that we’d been on the road that I started seeing the upper arches of the Hernando de Soto bridge. Now, I only knew it as the Mississippi River Bridge and the fact that it was a very big bridge, but some time in my past I had expressed some sort of trepidation about driving across bridges. And almost immediately when I saw it, it was like, “I can’t do this. I can’t drive across this bridge.”
And my mom said, “You have to. There’s no place for us to pull off now. So, you just need to pay attention to the lanes, focus on the lines like you would any other time you’re driving on the interstate.” And so I followed my mom’s instruction, and I drove across the bridge. The good news was once I driven across the longest bridge in Tennessee, all the other bridges were easy.
So, my mom knew what she was doing when she put me behind the wheel of the car, even though it freaked me out just a little bit when I saw those upper arches. I kept going, and once I driven across that bridge, I knew I could go anywhere in Tennessee and beyond.
Chris: Thanks for listening to Highway See. We hope you’ve enjoyed the sights and sounds of Tennessee’s highway history. We’ll be back next time to see more history, more highways, and more reasons why building better roads benefits us all. For more details on Tennessee’s road and bridge infrastructure, and more details and resources about what you’ve heard on this podcast, visit highwaysee.com. That’s highway—S-E-E dot com. And be sure to follow the podcast on Apple, or Google Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you choose to listen to podcasts.
Chris: Highway See is presented by Tennessee Infrastructure Alliance and was recorded and produced in association with HumblePod. The creator and executive producer is Susie Alcorn. Our producer and host is Chris Hill. Our co-writers are Luke Coffey and Darrin Kirkus. Our audio engineer is Ashley Lehmann. Our production assistant is January Beeler, and our guests for this episode are Commissioner Clay Bright, Ted Kniazewycz, Chris Frieberg, and Susie Alcorn. We hope you’ll see the highway when you’re on the road.