Federal authorities have opened two investigations into the performance of the Arkansas Department of Transportation’s bridge inspection program since the emergency shutdown of the Interstate 40 bridge over the Mississippi River last month, the state agency’s top official said Wednesday.
One is being conducted by the inspector general’s office at the U.S. Department of Transportation, said Lori Tudor, director at the Arkansas Transportation Department.
That investigation took place at Tudor’s request. She had initially requested that the FBI conduct a criminal investigation, but Tudor said the FBI told her the inspector general’s office was more suited to investigate whether an employee’s failure to find what turned out to be a significant fracture that affected the integrity of the bridge was criminal.
The leader of the bridge inspection team that didn’t detect the fracture during inspections in September 2019 and September 2020 was fired by the Arkansas department.
The Federal Highway Administration is conducting a comprehensive audit of the bridge inspection program. The agency’s annual review of the program has never found it out of compliance, state transportation officials said.
The annual review is conducted by staff members in the Federal Highway Administration’s state office in Little Rock. The more in-depth investigation is being conducted by the national staff, Tudor said.
The Arkansas department also has broadened its internal investigation into the program to include an unauthenticated photograph from 2016 that appeared to show a crack developing in the area where the significant fracture was found, Tudor said.
The department has asked the inspector general’s office to authenticate the photograph, but agency officials now assume that the photograph is accurate and the fracture dates back as far as 2016. To date, the agency has documented that the fracture was apparent in 2019 before two annual inspections focusing on the beam with the fracture and other key elements of the bridge.
The department also is seeking an outside engineering firm to review the bridge inspection program, particularly the equipment it uses to inspect major bridges such as the I-40 bridge, also known as the Hernando de Soto Bridge. Those costs would be covered in an almost $2 million increase in the bridge inspection program, to $6.4 million in the fiscal year that begins July 1.
Tudor told the commission that she welcomed the investigations and said their findings would improve not only the department’s bridge inspection program but likely will have a much broader application.
“We’re learning we have weakness in the program,” she said. “We didn’t catch this fracture as quickly as we should have. All that is going to make the whole nation better. It’s going to make us better, but it’s going to make the whole inspection program across the nation better.”
The disclosures came at a meeting of the Arkansas Highway Commission, its first since the bridge closed May 11, triggering a crisis that reverberated nationally as the Biden administration tries to persuade Congress to pass an infrastructure package.
“It’s a vital link not only for Arkansas and Tennessee but for freight movements from coast to coast,” said Steve Frisbee, the department’s assistant chief engineer for operations.
While much of the attention has been on the repair of the bridge, Frisbee said another collaborative effort among the federal and state transportation agencies as well as local officials on both sides of the bridge has been to keep traffic moving. They have been meeting daily.
The closing of the I-40 bridge forced much of its traffic over to the Interstate 55 bridge, which also connects West Memphis and Memphis.
Before the I-40 bridge was closed, both bridges carried combined 85,000 to 90,000 vehicles daily, Frisbee said. The I-55 bridge now carries 75,000 to 8o,000 vehicles per day. Other traffic has diverted to bridges at Helena-West Helena to the south and Caruthersville, Mo., to the north.
Work on both sides of the river to smooth traffic flow has included construction of an additional lane on I-55 at the I-55/W.E.H. Crump Boulevard interchange, long a choke point even before the I-40 bridge closed.
Where traffic routinely took an hour to cross the I-55 bridge after the I-40 bridge closure — and several hours if there was a traffic crash — the times have been dropping to the point it was down to as little as 10 minutes, “which is basically free-flowing,” Frisbee said.
Alec Farmer, a commission member from Jonesboro, looked up from his phone to inform Frisbee, “Steve, I just want to let you know, it’s a five-minute delay right now.”
“That’s the best Wednesday since May 11, I can assure you,” Frisbee responded.
But he said the collaborative effort to move traffic probably has hit a wall.
“It’s amazing the traffic control improvements we’ve made, but we are tapped out,” Frisbee said. “There [is] just physically not a way to get so many vehicles through two lanes of traffic at one time.”
The department also used the meeting to defend its bridge inspection program, which agency officials say remains a robust effort that’s been overshadowed by the I-40 bridge calamity.
“We feel like the story of our bridge inspection program has been lost,” said Rex Vines, the department’s chief engineer and deputy director.
The program is responsible for inspecting 12,766 state, county and municipal bridges. Of those, 7,383 bridges are on state highways.
Most bridges are inspected every two years, but some bridges are inspected annually. They include the 765 bridges that have been deemed fracture critical, which includes the I-40 span. Such a designation means the bridges lack redundancies that would allow a bridge to collapse if only one component failed.
Most modern bridges are built with redundancies so that if one, two or even three components fail, the integrity of the bridge isn’t compromised, according to Frisbee.
The department has two dozen bridge inspection teams stationed throughout the state. It has three statewide inspection teams that focus on the biggest bridges.
The team leader and assistant team leader all must have five years of bridge inspection experience and qualify through an intensive two-work certification course and periodic refresher courses, Vines said. Their reference manuals include one the department produced and a national reference manual that exceeds 2,000 pages.
The program is in the process of acquiring drones to facilitate inspections, as well as training some team members as drone pilots, he said.
The state bridge inspection program undergoes a federal review every year and has “never been rated noncompliant,” Vines said.
Still, he expects changes to be forthcoming as a result of the I-40 bridge closing.
“The bridge inspection program, I’m quite sure, will be revised after this,” Vines said.
Members of the commission peppered Tudor and her top lieutenants with questions while at the same time praising their response to the crisis and the update they provided Wednesday.
“Considering the magnitude of the crisis, this is a great report,” said commission chairman Robert Moore Jr. of Arkansas City. “The public needs to recognize that this was not a situation that could’ve been avoided. Clearly, once that fracture was there, that bridge was going to be closed.
“We didn’t catch it as quickly as we would have liked to have caught it, but the fracture was there. This was a crisis that couldn’t be avoided. Of course, we’re most deeply thankful that it was caught in time so it didn’t cause a really catastrophic occurrence.”
The commission later met privately for Tudor’s regularly scheduled annual performance review and pronounced her performance, according to Moore, “not only satisfactory but highly satisfactory.”
The commission awarded her a 5.25% raise, the top of the range of raises at the commission’s disposal, Moore said. Her new salary will be $221,025.
It was her second performance review since assuming the agency’s top post in March 2020. Her first review, in June 2020, didn’t result in a raise in her annual salary of $210,000. Moore told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette last year that she had been on the job for too short a time to receive a raise then.
“There is so much we have learned and are continuing to learn from this crisis,” she said. “This has been a huge challenge for all of us. And especially for those folks out there on the road. We really want to say we understand that.”
Lorie Tudor, director of the Arkansas Department of Transportation, speaks Wednesday May 12, 2021 in Little Rock during a press briefing about the I-40 bridge closure over the Mississippi River.
(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staton Breidenthal)