Representatives from local industries affected by the protracted shutdown of the Hernando de Soto Bridge had the ear of the White House this week.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg visited with leaders of hometown shipping giant, FedEx, as well as both the Tennessee and Arkansas Trucking Associations in Memphis Thursday as they reiterated the importance of reliable and safe infrastructure for local, regional and national commerce. They also relayed the mounting economic damage the continued closure is causing.
The six-lane Interstate 40 bridge connecting Tennessee and Arkansas was shut down three weeks ago after a routine inspection found a serious fracture in a support beam.
“If we want to...remain the leading country in the world, we’ve got to make sure we have world-class infrastructure to match it,” Buttigieg said after touring the closed bridge with state transportation officials.
“We have, as a country, really been coasting off of infrastructure decisions that were made generations ago, and they served America well in the 20th Century, and into the beginning of the 21st,” Buttigieg said. “But, it is long past time for those generations now in positions of responsibility to do our part.”
Pressure is mounting in Washington D.C. for lawmakers to pass a significant infrastructure spending bill. Buttigieg said the White House continues to negotiate “in good faith” with congressional Republicans to strike a deal on President Biden’s proposal to devote at least $1 trillion to a plan.
The two parties differ on what to include in the package, with Republicans seeking to limit it to funding for more customary infrastructure projects such as fixing aging roads and bridges. They are also divided on how to fund the upgrades, although Biden most recently indicated flexibility on his original pitch to raise the corporate tax rate to pay for it.
“We are eager to make sure those conversations get every opportunity to succeed,” Buttigieg said. “But the president’s also said inaction is not an option, and we do know there’s a clock on all of this.”
In the meantime, Shannon Newton with the Arkansas Trucking Association says the Hernando de Soto Bridge closure has hit her industry hard. Each day, she says more than 26,000 commercial drivers are having to reroute—either to the nearby I-55 bridge, where they may face an hour-long delay, or travel much farther to other Mississippi River crossings.
“Either way they’re looking at 60 minutes of congestion or more than 60 miles out of route, which is roughly $2 million dollars a day that the industry is absorbing,” she said during a roundtable discussion with Buttigieg that also included Tennessee Republican Senator Marsha Blackburn and Democratic Congressman Steve Cohen.
It could be late summer, at the earliest, before engineers are able to permanently restore the bridge and deem it safe for the resumption of vehicle traffic.
Tennessee Department of Transportation Commissioner Clay Bright said Thursday that custom-made repair materials, such as heavy metal plates and rods, will arrive at the end of the month and could then take through at least July to assemble.
“We’ve all been very careful about how we’re going to approach this project, and again, making it safe through the construction,” he said.