Buttigieg hears of disruptions caused by broken bridge

By , Special to The Daily Memphian Updated: June 04, 2021 3:05 PM CT | Published: June 03, 2021 11:25 AM CT
<strong>Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg listens during a roundtable hosted by FedEx and attended by elected officials and business leaders on Thursday, June 3.</strong>&nbsp;(Patrick Lantrip/Daily Memphian)

Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg listens during a roundtable hosted by FedEx and attended by elected officials and business leaders on Thursday, June 3. (Patrick Lantrip/Daily Memphian)

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg could not provide a reopening date for the broken Hernando DeSoto Bridge, but he took copious notes Thursday, June 3, on suggestions from Mid-South transportation officials on how to better cope with the closing, the shutdown’s impact on trucking and how to avoid such breakdowns in the future.

“The biggest thing I’m taking away is simply the importance of this infrastructure and the very real, quantifiable cost,” Buttigieg said after he and Stephanie Pollack, acting administrator of the Federal Highway Administration, heard from the panel.

FedEx hosted the roundtable at its FedEx Experience Center near Memphis International Airport.

Third bridge idea ‘long term,’ takes back seat to repairs

Later in the day, after Buttigieg met with local and state officials at the Tennessee Welcome Center Downtown following a look at the bridge, U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Memphis, called the bridge closing the “poster child for infrastructure failure” nationwide.

Buttigieg said the repair and reopening of the bridge is “a regional issue, but a national concern.”

U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn, a Republican who has been a vocal critic of the Biden administration’s approach to infrastructure and its inclusion of infrastructure beyond roads and bridges, issued an email statement calling for “bipartisan, targeted” infrastructure priorities.

She said the bridge and its repair “deserves to have the full and immediate attention of the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Biden administration.”

“We look forward to a timeline for appropriate mitigation of this situation,” Blackburn said.

At the FedEx gathering Thursday morning, Buttigieg said he was struck by how the bridge closure has disrupted lives and workplaces. 

And he said he was impressed by “the cost of allowing things to continue to go, to accept infrastructure being degraded.”

The Biden administration is pushing a $1.7 trillion American Jobs Plan to provide money for infrastructure repair and maintenance as well as other items such as green-energy infrastructure. The administration proposes raising the corporate tax rate from 21% to 28% to fund the plan.

Other participants in the roundtable were FedEx President Raj Subramaniam, Arkansas Trucking Association President Shannon Samples Newton, Tennessee Trucking Association Vice President Donna England, Ozark Motor Line’s executive Jason Higginbotham, along with Cohen and Blackburn.

Cohen and Blackburn are polar opposites on the political spectrum, but they did not engage in any partisan arguments during the 45-minute event. In fact, after the roundtable ended, Cohen waited as Blackburn grabbed a few snacks before they stood talking quietly.

The absence of political squabbling was not lost on Buttigieg, who said politics are not a factor in making repairs. He added, “Which is a reminder that such things are still possible, especially when it comes to infrastructure.”

In her remarks, Blackburn asked the federal officials for a timeline for repairing and reopening the six-lane bridge. 

“What we need to have is a timeline and framework of a timeline for a mitigation plan to be carried out,” she said, noting I-40’s importance in linking the East Coast to the West Coast.

Cohen reminded Buttigieg that Memphis is “America’s distribution center.”

Cohen expressed support for an infrastructure bill. “What’s happening in Memphis right now is a microcosm of the country… The American people can’t wait any longer,” he said.

Cohen also advocated for construction of another bridge to span the Mississippi River at Memphis. Tennessee officials have estimated a third bridge would easily cost $1.5 billion to build.

The transportation executives provided a number of suggestions for how to help truckers better cope with the estimated delays of up to an hour as Interstate 40 is funneled onto the Interstate 55 Memphis & Arkansas Bridge.

Among them: Find ways to better communicate to truckers approaching Memphis about the extra time it will take to cross the river and designate more places for truckers to rest so that they avoid parking their rigs on highway shoulders and ramps.

Buttigieg appeared to take copious notes as Pollack moderated the discussion and asked questions. 

Subramaniam of FedEx told Buttigieg he was encouraged by bipartisan momentum for infrastructure in Washington. He asked for the government to incentivize electric commercial transportation and modernize the electric grid. He also voiced support for commercial charging stations for electric transportation.

England, of the Tennessee Transportation Association, said the delays caused by the closure are adding costs to businesses that will be passed on to consumers.

If more money is not invested in infrastructure, “we are going to have this happen in other states,” England said.

Ozark Motor Lines’ Higginbotham said the local trucking industry was already challenged to hire enough drivers, and the bridge closure is making hiring even harder. 

The delays crossing the river degrade productivity, he said. 

The Arkansas Trucking Association’s Newton told Buttigieg the closure has hurt the quality of day-to-day life for some truck drivers. For example, to avoid rush-hour congestion caused by the bridge at the I-55 crossing, many drivers are working nights instead of days, she said.

“What used to be a 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. has switched to 2 a.m. to 2 p.m. shift,” Newton said.

Buttigieg left FedEx after noon to go to the 48-year-old “new” bridge to see firsthand the repair work.

Federal money for bridge repairs may be on the way

And Buttigieg was scheduled to make public remarks at 2:15 p.m. while convening with Tennessee and Arkansas elected officials near the bridge at the Tennessee Welcome Center 

In addition to Buttigieg’s trip to Memphis, the Transportation Department has engaged with local and state officials in other ways about the closed bridge, according to a DOT statement.

According to the DOT:

  • Buttigieg has had two virtual meetings with the Arkansas and Tennessee delegations to discuss the I-40 bridge closure;
  • Pollack visited the bridge the week following the fracture’s discovery to meet with local officials;
  • Transportation staff has been in daily contact with Tennessee and Arkansas officials to assess, repair, and plan to safely reopen the I-40 bridge;
  • The Tennessee Department of Transportation has hired Kiewit to begin repairs. The federal Transportation Department helped speed up hiring the contractor by approving an expedited procurement request.

Last week, TDOT completed Phase 1 repairs several days ahead of schedule, according to federal officials.

Staff reporter Bill Dries contributed to this story. 


Pete Buttigieg American Jobs Plan Hernando DeSoto Bridge FedEx
Tom Bailey

Tom Bailey

Tom Bailey retired in January as a business reporter at The Daily Memphian, and after 40 years in journalism. A Tupelo, Mississippi, native, he graduated from Mississippi State University. He has lived in Midtown for 36 years.