Debate for a third bridge across the Mississippi River gains support from local lawmakers

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Thousands of drivers rely on both the I-40 and I-55 bridge for their daily commute.

Some Mid-South leaders even consider the bridges as a critical link to the global supply chain.

In May of 2021, the Mid-South lost its major artery when an inspector for the Arkansas Department of Transportation, or ARDOT, found a crack in one of the support beams.

FOX13 obtained the 911 call from that day with the inspector calling it a “supercritical find.”

RELATED: I-40 Bridge partially back open following months of repairs

The I-40 bridge was shut down for several months as crews worked to repair the crack. That shutdown forced thousands of drivers to take the aging I-55 bridge. The shutdown also sparked conversations on if a third bridge should be built if this situation ever happens again.

FOX13 investigates took a deeper dive into this proposal.

Dave Parker, Spokesman for ARDOT, told FOX13 that both the I-40 and I-55 bridge are aging.

“The I-55 bridge was first constructed in 1945 and opened to traffic in 1949,” Parker said. “The I-40 bridge opened to traffic in 1973.”

This puts the age of both bridges over a hundred years old. The I-55 bridge sits at 73-years-old. Parker said that even with its old age, the 55 bridge is still used every day to connect drivers and truck drivers to Tennessee and Arkansas.

RELATED: Traffic and hopefully business set to resume flowing across I-40 bridge

“The average daily traffic volume of the I-55 bridge is 45-thousand per day of which 40 percent of that is truck volume which equates to about 18-thousand per day,” said Parker. “The average daily traffic volume for the I-40 bridge is 47-thousand vehicles per day.”

Drivers got a glimpse in the summer of 2021 of what life would be like if one bridge goes down. The I-55 bridge took on double the amount of traffic than it normally sees, which caused hours of delays and a traffic nightmare until TDOT crews made some lane changes that eased traffic delays.

“It was not a good situation,” said Parker.

The closure of the I-40 bridge caused some issues with the supply chain as many truck drivers relied on the bridge to move cargo between the Natural state and the Bluff City.

“I don’t have a dollar amount, but I can just tell you it was millions of millions of dollars,” said Parker. “We all know that when it comes to getting freight from the west to the east or east to west, any time that’s delayed, it’s an added cost. It’s a cost that you and I have to incur.”

Discussions began after the I-40 bridge shutdown about potential solutions should either of the Mississippi River bridges were to go down again. One solution is to build a third bridge.

RELATED: I-40 Bridge engineers find 16 more locations that need repairing, TDOT says

“Talks have already started,” said Parker.

In support of a third bridge, both Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland and Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris sent letters to Tennessee Governor Bill Lee asking that he list the building of a third bridge as a “priority transportation infrastructure project.”

In Mayor Strickland’s letter to the Governor, Strickland emphasized the role Memphis plays in the distribution world saying, “Memphis holds the distinction as home to the busiest cargo airport in the world and one of the busiest trucking corridors in the nation.”

Mayor Harris echoed a similar message calling this infrastructure project “critical to the global supply chain.”

FOX13 spoke to Congressman Steve Cohen of Memphis who thinks a 3rd bridge is necessary.

“There’s no better time than now to get the ball rolling,” said Cohen.

RELATED: TDOT to load test I-40 Bridge Wednesday; exact opening date still unclear

Even though there is support from local leaders, Cohen says before he and other lawmakers can get involved, they have to get the ok from the Governor.

“The first thing is we’ve got to get the initiative from the governor and then we’ve got to have environmental impact studies and planning money,” said Cohen.

FOX13 also reached out to US Senators for Tennessee Bill Hagerty and Marsha Blackburn. Neither directly answered if they support building a third bridge, but a statement from Senator Hagerty reads:

“Whether it’s by road, by rail, by water, or by air, Memphis is a logistics hub not only for Tennessee but for the country. As U.S. Senator, I intend to do everything I can by working with local and state leaders to ensure the needs of Memphis, Shelby County, and the broader Mid-south region are met to maintain our state’s essential role in the movement of goods and people.”

Senator Marsha Blackburn also sent a statement that reads:

“Memphis is a key transportation hub that Americans rely on to get access to critical goods. Throughout the I-40 bridge closure, my team and I remained in constant contact with local, state, and federal officials to ensure a safe, efficient, and speedy repair. Senator Hagerty and I will continue to ensure Memphis has the resources to fulfill its role as a logistics hub for the Mid-South region.”

With a project of this size, the big challenge, Parker told FOX13, is finding the money.

RELATED: I-40 Bridge set to fully reopen next week, TDOT confirms

“Everyone agrees there needs to be the third bridge, but where’s the money going to come from,” said Parker.

Another challenge is the location. Parker told FOX13 there is one area being discussed in Southeast Arkansas.

“The location would be southeast Arkansas in Arkansas city crossing over into Tennessee,” he said.

Parker said there is another challenge when it comes to deciding where to put the bridge.

“Memphis is on the New Madrid fault line where some people have suggested in the next 25 to 30 years there could be a major earthquake,” said Parker. “Even though both bridges are equipped to handle that, the land surrounding those bridges may not.”

Another option being proposed is replacing and expanding the I-55 bridge.

In a response to the letters both Mayor Strickland and Mayor Harris sent to Governor Lee, Interim TDOT Commissioner said building a 3rd bridge could cost between $1.5 and $2 billion, almost double TDOT’s annual construction budget.

While listing some options states could take to get federal funding, the interim commissioner said in the letter that even if federal funds were secured, “the project would still require sizeable financial participation from Tennessee and Arkansas, such that the project may not be financially feasible.”

There is more support for the bridge. Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson sent FOX13 this statement regarding the effort.

“When the I-40 bridge between West Memphis and Memphis closed this year, we all saw the importance of safe, secure infrastructure. The discussion around the construction of a third bridge is a necessary first step, as this would be a multi-year process to complete. I have no doubt another bridge would allow for increased economic activity, and I would support that project if it was determined to be physically and financially feasible. From an executive standpoint, creating additional crossings will lead to better economic opportunities for Arkansans and the region as we see increased growth. However, Arkansas’s participation in this project will require a thorough feasibility study by the Arkansas Highway Commission, as they are an independent agency tasked with oversight of bridge and highway projects.”

FOX13 also reached out to Arkansas Senators Tom Cotton and John Boozman as well as Arkansas Congressman Rick Crawford and have not heard back. FOX13 also reached out to Memphis Jim Strickland for a response to TDOT’s letter. We were told the Mayor is not currently speaking on this topic.