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Transcript: Secretary Buttigieg Remarks at I-40 Bridge in Memphis

Thursday, June 3, 2021

Thanks everybody for joining us here.

Put simply, the reason that I'm here is to emphasize that the situation with this bridge may be a regional issue, but it is a national concern.

And we want to make sure that national attention and resources are available to help the state and local authorities who are resolving this and working toward a safe reopening of the bridge.

This is something that impacts tens of thousands of people who count on the ability to drive across the De Soto bridge every day. It's an issue for the businesses depending on the customers who go across the bridge. Of course, for people who may be in need of emergency services.

And even for people outside this region, it is important that we restore this connection quickly because like so much about the Memphis region, it is an area of national logistical importance.

I want to emphasize how encouraged I have been to see the cooperation that's been going on here since the issue was first discovered on May 11th. We've been collaborating with state partners to help them to get repairs done safely and expeditiously, and to manage the travel delays that are happening in the interim. And what I've seen is across the local, state, and federal boundaries, across the line between Arkansas and Tennessee, across party lines and without regard to politics, there's been enormous collaboration.

In particular, I want to thank the leaders of in Tennessee and Arkansas Departments of Transportation, Commissioner Clay Bright on the Tennessee side, Chairman Robert Moore on the Arkansas side, for their responses to this closure, for the planning on how to safely reopen the bridge, and for the engagement across those boundaries I was talking about earlier.

I've also had a chance to visit with Mayor Strickland and Mayor McClendon of West Memphis and heard about the creativity and the hard work that they have put in to supporting their residents through this challenging time.

I want to thank Representative Cohen for your leadership, for having encouraged me from literally our first conversation to come out here to Memphis. And as you likely know, Representative Cohen and his colleagues on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee have some very important work ahead of them in just a few days as they return to Washington and take up the committee markup on a bill that will have a lot of very important connections to the President's American Jobs Plan. And I want to acknowledge and thank Senator Blackburn, who was with us earlier today, and enjoyed being able to hear her perspective and see her commitment to these issues as well.

We were able to view the bridge, see progress on repairs, and spend time with the authorities working these issues on the ground to see what they need and where we can be helpful. And I also want to acknowledge our personnel on the ground from the Federal Highway Administration in both Tennessee and Arkansas, led by Acting Administrator Pollack, who have been responsive from day one on this.

We also got to hear from people and companies from a small family-owned trucking business, all the way to FedEx, about how the closure has impacted them.

Now, our understanding of the state of play is that phase one work is complete. That was the work to stabilize the bridge. And now phase two, the structural work to fully strengthen the fractured area is underway. A final step will be not only completing the physical work, but the inspections that are so important to address any remaining issues and have been underway since the first.

I know our state partners will be here in just a moment to cover that in greater detail.

I also just want to emphasize that I understand how challenging this has been in different ways for different people in the communities of Memphis, West Memphis, and beyond.

We've heard through the mayor about trucks having been rerouted onto residential streets in West Memphis because their navigation app sends them there.

We've heard about people in the hospitality industry, seeing their hours cut, after everything they've been through with COVID, because of the impact on customers. And heard from truckers who pointed to losses in the millions every day from the delays and the reroutes that have been responsible.

We are of course, grateful and glad that this was detected without any loss of life, but that doesn't mean the closure hasn't been painful.

So we're doing everything we can to help. Safety is of course, the first and top priority, and Federal Highway Administration personnel have been meeting daily with Tennessee and Arkansas to support the safe repair of the bridge. Did what they could to help toward getting phase one completed ahead of schedule, and are also partnering to reduce the traffic delays on the other bridge, the I-55 bridge, helping to do things like quickly re-striping a critical interchange. And I was pleased to see that the average travel time on I-55 went from a 47-minute delay two weeks ago to a 27-minute delay on average last week.

Also, note that the Federal Highway Administration has initiated a program assessment of the Arkansas bridge program last week to make sure that the right programs and policies and people are in place. And we hope that that will yield more answers about what happened and how we can prevent things like this in the future.

The other thing I want to emphasize is the interconnectedness of this country that I think is so much on display in this critical shipping and logistics hub that Memphis and West Memphis represent. You got highways that connect from all the way to Canada and Mexico and across the US coming through here, carrying over a hundred million tons of freight annually. Major river barges, some of which we saw passing under the De Soto bridge. Five class-one rail lines, fifth-largest inland port in the country. And of course, an exceptionally important cargo airport.

And it's one more reminder, just like the Colonial Pipeline incident was of how much we depend on critical infrastructure that most days we may not even think about.

And our country has got some work to do in this regard. We have 45,000 bridges in poor condition in this country. And Americans cross those bridges 178 million times every single day. America has fallen out of the top 10 in infrastructure.

And if we want to be the leading –  remain the leading country – in the world, we've got to make sure we have world-class infrastructure to match. I know that's something that people understand regardless of party, regardless of region and we're doing everything we can to make that a reality.

So, with that, it's my pleasure to hand it over to Representative Cohen, a fierce advocate for this region, for infrastructure, and for making sure that we get this bridge addressed, safely and expeditiously. Representative, over to you.