2 senior Arkansas bridge inspection engineers out after release of long-awaited I-40 reports

The fractured tie girder on the I-40 Hernando DeSoto Bridge in May (Arkansas Department of Transportation)

This story was co-published with The Daily Memphian.

The Arkansas Department of Transportation on Thursday confirmed the retirement of two senior bridge inspection engineers soon after releasing new information about the near-catastrophic crack found earlier this year on the I-40 bridge linking Memphis and Arkansas.

Mike Hill, who ran ArDOT’s heavy bridge maintenance program, and Stewart Linz, the program’s second-in-command, were responsible for overseeing inspections of over 60 bridges in Arkansas, including some of the largest in the state. The I-40 bridge was among them.

Dave Parker, a spokesman for ArDOT, said the change in leadership within the heavy bridge program “was a decision made collectively by the ArDOT executive management team” after reviewing the results of a federal review of the program, an ArDOT internal investigation, “and our overall concerns about the effectiveness of the program moving forward.”

The I-40 Hernando DeSoto Bridge is a 3.3 mile structure that carries some 41,000 vehicles per day across the Mississippi River between Memphis and West Memphis. On May 11, a contractor discovered a massive crack in a steel girder considered “fracture critical,” meaning its failure could have caused the entire span to collapse. The bridge was shut down immediately and remained closed to traffic for almost three months while repairs were made. It fully reopened on July 28. The cost of the routine and specialized consultant inspections and repairs since inspectors discovered the bridge crack has reached approximately $10 million.

Soon after the crack was discovered, amateur photographs surfaced showing the crack had been visible as far back as 2016. Somehow, ArDOT’s annual inspections had missed it for years. Until recently only one ArDOT employee had faced consequences for the inspection failure: Monty Frazier, a bridge inspector who was part of the team that examined the bridge for several years and the team lead for two years. Frazier was fired on May 16.

But this week, the Federal Highway Administration released a long-awaited assessment of ArDOT’s bridge inspection program. Though the 100-page report does not delve into the specific causes of the I-40 inspection failure, it provides a list of 18 recommendations for ArDOT to follow that hint at a variety of shortcomings within the program as a whole. They include a lack of quality control measures, a shortage of details regarding inspection procedure and documentation, and an absence of on-site input from professional engineers during the course of inspections of major bridges.

On Thursday, ArDOT also released the results of an internal investigation, performed by its human resources division. The ArDOT report continues to place the blame primarily on Frazier, the fired inspector. However, it also acknowledges larger issues within the inspection program, including “a culture where team members did not feel they had the authority or support to question a lead inspector’s procedures or thoroughness” and calls for placing the heavy bridge maintenance program under new management.

Hill, as the head of the heavy bridge inspection program, knew he could be held responsible for the inspection failure soon after the crack was first discovered. “I understand you all may be getting some pressure to fire me,” Hill wrote in a May 16 email to ArDOT Deputy Director Rex Vines. “You don’t have to worry that I’m going to do something that hurts the Program even more on my way out. I want the Program to come back stronger from this experience and I want my team to succeed. Even if I’m no longer part of it.”

Vines forwarded the email to Lorie Tudor, the ArDOT director, soon afterward. “I just wanted you to see this,” he wrote. “I think it speaks volumes of Mike’s heart.”

Neither Hill nor Linz could be reached for comment Thursday. Parker, the agency spokesman, said no other ArDOT employees have retired or been dismissed as a result of the internal investigation.

Both the federal report and the internal ArDOT report were posted on the agency’s website Thursday morning, along with the results of a forensic analysis of the cracked steel girder performed by engineering firm Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates. At least one other investigation is still pending: A probe by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Office of Inspector General, which has been asked to determine if any negligence rises to the level of a criminal offense. Parker said the agency has not been given a timeline for when that investigation is expected to be complete.

The fractured girder in May (Arkansas Department of Transportation)

ArDOT’s findings

In ArDOT’s internal report, the agency definitively states for the first time it has verified the crack was visible “at least as early as 2016.” In July, The Daily Memphian and The Arkansas Nonprofit News Network published a photo from 2014 — taken by a tourist on a riverboat — that also appears to show the crack. 

Parker said the 2014 image is still under investigation by the Office of Inspector General. “A cursory review of our files revealed no photographs taken during that time frame,” he added. “Photographic documentation during those years was not routinely part of the inspection process, and therefore no such internal photos are available to our knowledge.”

ArDOT did not interview the inspectors who examined the bridge in 2014 or 2015 as part of its internal review, Parker said, and those inspectors are no longer employed in the heavy bridge section. ArDOT’s inspection reports for the I-40 bridge from those years — previously obtained with a public records request — do not list the names of the employees involved.

The ArDOT report says “the terminated inspector,” meaning Monty Frazier, was “directly responsible for inspecting that portion of the Bridge in 2016, 2017, 2019 and 2020.” But, for the first time, the agency acknowledged Frazier was not responsible for the fractured girder in 2018, contradicting earlier statements made by ArDOT Director Lorie Tudor.

In July, the agency insisted it had “verified” that Frazier was the only inspector of the girder between 2016 and 2020. “Monty Frazier was the only inspector who looked at that particular tie girder,” Tudor said in an interview at the time. But as reported in August by The Arkansas Nonprofit News Network and The Daily Memphian, ArDOT’s inspection report from 2018 doesn’t list Frazier as one of the two employees responsible for the bridge element containing the girder. 

Inspectors look over the soon-to-be opened Broadway Bridge on Feb. 23, 2017 in Little Rock, Arkansas. Among them is Monty Frazier (right). (Courtesy ArDOT)

The ArDOT report indicates an inspector other than Frazier was responsible for the 2018 inspection but primarily blames “a lack of adequate management and organization by administration” for that employee’s failure to find the crack. “The inspector has been verbally counseled and will receive additional training,” the report says.

Parker said the employee had been a statewide bridge inspector for under two years at the time. “The inexperience of the lead inspector should have prompted management to take steps to ensure the inspector had guidance and training from senior supervisory or management personnel on-site,” he said.

It remains unclear, however, why the 2018 inspector failed to notice the crack that year — just as it remains unclear why Frazier failed to do so. When asked whether the inspector from 2018 gained hands-on access to the fractured portion of the bridge, as required by protocol, Parker said, “The inspector and assistant who were responsible for this in 2018 could not recall enough detail about the inspection to determine why the crack wasn’t found. They simply did not know how they missed it.”

The ArDOT report also says management failed “to adequately act on reports by employees concerned with [Frazier’s] job performance.”

When asked about the nature of those complaints, Parker said “concerns were expressed to management by an Assistant Bridge Inspector regarding the speed and lack of thoroughness at which Monty Frazier regularly did his inspection. Concerns about Frazier were expressed among members of the inspection team, but the culture was such that team members believed that their concerns would not be heard because of the lack of action taken by management after these concerns had already been reported by another member of the team.”

Parker said the assistant inspector complained to the heavy bridge management team on at least three occasions, starting when the assistant began working with Frazier in 2018. The assistant’s concerns were not about the I-40 bridge specifically, Parker said.

The concerns were registered verbally and no documentation exists, he added. “There was no official process for employees to report complaints or concerns about an inspector’s job performance,” Parker said — another problem noted in the ArDOT internal report.

The ArDOT internal report also notes several other ways in which the heavy bridge program “lacked adequate internal controls.”

Protocol says inspection teams should be rotated so that no single employee is responsible for the same bridge component each year. But, the report says, management failed to rotate inspection teams properly. “The assigned ‘“lead’” inspector was rotated and recorded in the system, but the same inspector was allowed to inspect the same arch spans each time in 2016, 2017, 2019, and 2020,” it says.

The ArDOT report also notes a lack of detail regarding the agency’s procedures for conducting inspections and the reports produced by inspectors — two issues raised by The Arkansas Nonprofit News Network and The Daily Memphian earlier this year. 

In August, when asked for documentation of its inspection procedure for the I-40 bridge, ArDOT provided a single four-page document containing three diagrams and fewer than 200 words. Engineering experts interviewed by ANNN and The Daily Memphian at the time said the protocol appeared to be lacking in detail. Annual inspection reports did not document what actions were taken by each member of the inspection crew each year.

ArDOT’s report draws similar conclusions. 

“The ARDOT Bridge Inspection Manual outlines overarching fracture critical inspection procedures, but there are no formal documented detailed plans for the Bridge to ensure consistency,” it says. “Inspection reports on the bridge lacked adequate detail to identify who was responsible for what portion of an inspection and/or what date a specific element was inspected.”

The report concludes with a substantial list of changes to be implemented in ArDOT’s bridge inspection program. They include replacing management within the heavy bridge section, reorganizing the inspection program, creating an oversight committee and adding personnel. Future inspections of “complex/heavy” bridges will include on-site supervision by a professional engineer.

This reporting is courtesy of the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network, an independent, nonpartisan news project dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans, and is supported in part by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

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The Arkansas Nonprofit News Network is an independent, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans. Our work is re-published by partner newsrooms across the state.