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Emergency I-40 bridge closure causing supply chain disruptions and headaches for truckers

Officials say the closure could "last months rather than weeks."

The sudden emergency closure of a major bridge at the Arkansas/Tennessee border has already begun to affect the supply chain and traffic flow in the area. 

The Interstate 40 Hernando de Soto Bridge was shut down on Tuesday, May 11th after a substantial crack was discovered, compromising the structure. Now, officials are saying the closure could “last months rather than weeks.” As far as freight and traffic are concerned, this is not good news. 

“This is the third heaviest freight corridor in the country,” said Dr. Martin Lipinski, Director of the University of Memphis Intermodal Freight Transportation Institute.

Memphis, Tennessee is a FedEx distribution hub, home to more than 400 trucking companies, is one of only three cities serviced by five class 1 railroads, and is even the 4th largest inland port in the US. Now, with all highway and river traffic shut down over and under the bridge, getting freight where it needs to go is going to be tricker. 

“They will not allow river traffic until they make sure the bridge won’t fall into the river and is structurally sound to hold its own weight,” said Lipinski to ABC 24 News.

“When you add this traffic to that traffic it’s going to have a significant impact and cause major delays to not only freight, but personal traffic,” he said.

Traffic from Arkansas into Tennessee has been backed up along Interstate 55 for miles each day since the bridge shut down and, even if the freight can get to the truck, many trucks just aren’t able to complete as many loads with the increased time spent in traffic. 

“When I come up here, that’s the main road everybody takes, so it’s slowing a lot of people down,” said KLLM driver Paul Vaughn. “I’m about four hours ahead of schedule right now, so I’m going to give it a couple of hours and then if I have to, just get in and then you just have to keep a bubble around you because these people still driving like traffic is okay, and it’s not, he said to WMC 5 News.

 A University of Memphis Civil Engineer professor says that, due to Memphis’ central location within the United States, the disruption the bridge shutdown causes is especially intense. 

“If you compare it to a body, this looks like the arteries and this is the heart of the country .So if you cut the heart of the country, it’s like you are giving the country a heart attack by shutting down the I-40 bridge – because that is what connects the east and the west to the rest of the U.S.,” said Dr. Abdelnaby.

Dr. Abdelnaby studied motion and vibration on the Hernando de Soto bridge for two years, and even installed sensors that can warn officials if there is a problem. 

“There is something called fatigue failure. It starts to crack with time,” he said. 

“It starts to crack with time. It can take 10 years, 50 years, 100 years depending on how many cycles and the location.”

Despite many truckers stuck in traffic and barges with nowhere to go, companies that typically use the bridge in their shipping routes say that they are aware of the closure and Fedex, who has a large distribution center in the city, says they are closely monitoring the situation and have already implemented contingency plans to keep up with shipping demands.