The Hernando DeSoto bridge—a vital highway crossing that’s about two miles long and located between Memphis and eastern Arkansas—was forced to close earlier this week after transportation officials discovered a massive crack in a core part of its skeleton. Now, it’s not clear when that fissure will be fixed.
Since that crack was discovered during a routine inspection this past Tuesday, emergency closures on the bridge and the waterway below have held up thousands of vehicles and close to 800 barges carrying crude oil, along with crops like grain and soy. The Tennessee Department of Transportation’s official numbers put the bridge’s traffic at about 45,000 vehicles per day, which will now be diverted to (and clogging up) nearby roadways.
Exactly how long these repairs will take depends on who you ask. Paul Degges, a chief engineer with the Tennessee Department of Transportation told CNN that it would be “probably six to eight weeks minimum” before the state could patch the crack appropriately.
A lot of that is just because we don’t even know how deeply fucked the nearly 50-year-old bridge actually is. Degges added in another interview that the first step is having DOT engineers run mathematical models to assess how deep that damage runs, before diving ahead with a repair plan. The cracked beam is 900 feet long, and built up of four solid steel blades, with “at least two” that seem to be no longer connected after the crack, he added. There’s also the added time it would take to get these new beams manufactured while the country still grapples with a growing steel shortage.
It’s unclear exactly how long the crack has been there or where it came from. In 2019, the Hernando DeSoto was slapped with a “fair” rating from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Bridge Inventory, which is just one level above “poor.” And Tennessee’s not alone here—one 2020 analysis found that more than a third of the nation’s bridges—about 231,000 total—either need to be repaired or entirely replaced. When Joe Biden presented his vision for the American Jobs Plan back in March, he was sure to mention plans to fix the ten “most economically significant” bridges in the country, along with 10,000 smaller ones that had fallen into disrepair.
In the meantime, the bridge has become a talking point for politicians on both sides who agree that the crumbling infrastructure needs a fix, but disagree on how that fix should be funded. Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen, whose district includes Memphis, told NBC News that he would work with authorities in Arkansas and Tennessee to make sure improvements to the Hernando DeSoto were included in Biden’s infrastructure plans. But Republican lawmakers have argued that Biden’s $2.3 billion dollar plan is too broad to give our nation’s “hard infrastructure”—like roads and bridges—the urgent help they clearly need.