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ARDOT resignations lead to questions months after Hernando de Soto Bridge reopens

The resignations of two senior engineers caught the attention of the Arkansas Legislative Council and uncovered a deeper cause of the bridge's closure.

WEST MEMPHIS, Ark. — The Arkansas Legislative Counsel Highway Commission Review and Advisory Subcommittee met with ARDOT Director Lorie Tudor on Wednesday afternoon. During the hour-long meeting, legislators questioned Tudor on the resignations of heavy-bridge engineer Steven Hill and his assistant Stewart Linz.

Both Hill and Linz oversaw the department which managed the inspection and maintenance of sixty bridges across Arkansas. 

In May, inspector Monty Frazier was dismissed following his failure to find the crack in the I-40 Hernando de Soto Bridge that caught the nation's attention following an emergency closure of the bridge. Frazier inspected the bridge in 2016, 2017, 2019 and 2020 - during all four inspections, he missed the crack.

When pressed about why Frazier's managers, Hill and Linz, were not terminated, Tudor gave the subcommittee, which she felt, was a distinction.

"They were not intentional in not doing their job," she said. "They just weren't good managers. They were good engineers; bad managers."

During the meeting, ARDOT Assistant Chief Engineer for Operations, Steve Frisbee, added to the distinction by presenting the findings from a forensic investigation conducted while the bridge was closed. The investigation showed the crack likely occurred within hours of the initial steel fabrication of the tie girder as a result of electroslag welding, which was common practice during the 1960s and 70s. Why was this not caught at this time? Frisbee answered by saying, "the defective weld was not visible to the eye after the tie girder was fabricated."

Since then, advances have been made in how inspections are conducted with ultrasonic testing, but it is unknown why the defective weld and eventual crack were not found for decades.

ARDOT confirmed the bridge was near catastrophic failure but could not say with certainty how long the structure would have held without the repairs. The subcommittee asked if inspectors found the crack sooner and if there could have been a different repair - the answer was no. The severity of the damage would have resulted in the same shutdown and repair process even if found during the 2016 inspection. The Office of the Inspector General authenticated an amateur viral photo from 2016, in which the crack was visible.

In the months following the emergency closure of the Hernando de Soto Bridge and its reopening in August, ARDOT and the Arkansas Highway Commission have restructured the management of the heavy-bridge maintenance department. With these changes, they are confident in the path forward. For anyone concerned this could happen on other bridges across the state, ARDOT confirmed the Hernando de Soto bridge is the only one in Arkansas with this design structure, so no other bridges should be impacted the same way.

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