Our infrastructure is already reaching crisis levels across the country, as was seen with the severe crack found on a bridge near Memphis. With governments at all levels trying to repair our bridges with limited funding, adding bigger trucks would be a significant step back as we are trying to move forward.
On Tuesday, May 11, 2021, engineers began inspecting the Hernando de Soto Bridge, a segment of Interstate 40 that connects Memphis to Arkansas. Shortly after beginning, they were calling 911 to request an emergency shutdown of the entire bridge due to a severe crack in an essential beam in the main span of the deck, which is over 900 feet long.
“We need to get people off the bridge immediately.”
Bridge Inspector, 911 Call
This type of bridge failure, known as a “fatigue crack”, stems from repeated crossings, particularly by heavy trucks. This bridge needs to withstand the weight of tens of thousands of vehicles a day. Bridges built decades ago were never meant to accommodate the higher number and heavier weight of today’s trucks.
As many as 41,000 vehicles cross the bridge daily, 30% of which are heavy commercial trucks.
The impacts of the I-40 bridge closure are staggering:
- People Could Have Died: When a bridge is identified as “fracture critical”, as was the case of the I-40 bridge, there is a significant risk of disaster. This was the case in the deadly Minnesota bridge collapse. The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials explain that fracture critical members are components “whose failure would probably cause a portion of or the entire bridge to collapse.”
- Businesses are hurt: According to reports, the trucking industry alone has lost over $70 million, and in the following months, continued to lose nearly $1 million a day in reduced productivity, with some vehicles diverting up to sixty miles longer. The structure was so dangerously damaged, barge traffic was unable to pass under it, causing over 400 barges to face delays.
- Everyday motorists suffer: Traffic and congestion are becoming a major problem, with the I-55 being the only bridge alternate for 60 miles. This has led local hospitals to utilize contingency plans to get trauma patients to facilities. A 16 mile trip in the area can take nearly three hours.
The I-40 bridge is indicative of a nationwide bridge crisis
- Our bridges today are in terrible shape. In fact, 54% of the nation’s bridges are in fair or poor condition (FHWA, Bridge Condition by Highway System 2020). There are 44,733 bridges which are rated “poor”, a designation that is lower than the I-40 bridge which was rated as “fair” (FHWA, 2020).
- States don’t have the money to repair the bridges now. Replacement of bridges in “poor” condition would cost $51.4 billion (FHWA, Bridge Replacement Unit Costs 2019). The total backlog for all necessary bridge repairs is over $125 billion. With the current rate of investment, it will take until 2071 to make all currently necessary repairs (ASCE, 2021 Infrastructure Report Card).
Bigger trucks would make situations like this more common
Longer, heavier trucks would put more stress on our bridges, leading to bridge failures like what happened in Memphis. USDOT studied the issue and found that thousands of bridges nationwide would not be able to handle the weight of bigger trucks.