The Investigators: Federal info shows U.S. 49 bridge requires corrective action as traffic increases

Updated: May. 28, 2021 at 9:22 PM CDT
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HELENA-WEST HELENA, Ark.. (WMC) - Since the I-40 bridge closure, other Mid-South bridges are seeing a big increase in traffic.

One of those bridges is the Helena-West Helena bridge, which connects Mississippi and Arkansas.

The U.S. 49 bridge normally sees around 4,500 vehicles a day, but that number is way up according to Helena-West Helena’s mayor. Mayor Kevin Smith is concerned about the bridge’s condition and if it can handle the extra traffic.

“It’s almost congested at this point,” he said. “I hope we don’t have anything bad happen to anybody on our bridge during this episode.”

Bridge inspection reports obtained by the WMC Action News 5 Investigators show he may have reason for that concern. The Federal Highway Administration keeps track of bridge inspection data.

It shows the bridge is in “fair” condition.

On the Arkansas side, the structural evaluation of the bridge shows it’s rated a 3 on a 0-9 scale, which correlates with what the FHWA’s terms “intolerable” and requires high priority corrective action.

“You don’t want to add more traffic to it, especially with the truck traffic. I’m more worried about the trucks,” said Adel Abdelnaby, a structural engineer and associate professor at the University of Memphis.

We showed him six inspection reports that we obtained from the Arkansas Department of Transportation (ARDOT) for the U.S. 49 bridge from January 2019 to March 2021.

Abdelnaby says looking through them, Smith has every right to be concerned because there is corrosion throughout the structure.

“It looks like it’s widespread,” he said. “It’s bad, but it needs some analysis to know how long it’s going to take.”

How long it’s going to take to become dangerous, according to Abdelnaby.

He says the bridge is safe right now, which aligns with what Smith says he was told by ARDOT: the bridge can handle the extra traffic.

However, Smith wonders how long the bridge will be able to handle the extra traffic.

“I’m not going to feel better until we address the long-term picture,” said Smith. “The long-term picture is we have to have a new bridge here.”

The bridge inspector who was fired for missing the crack on the I-40 bridge did inspect the U.S.49 bridge twice, in 2019 and in 2020. Another bridge inspector was in charge of the March 2021 inspection, but Smith said the bridge will be re-inspected by ARDOT in mid-June.

He also said he wants to form a coalition of government leaders from Arkansas, Mississippi, and Memphis to push for funding a new bridge as soon as possible.

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