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Bell & Associates Construction Makes Progress on Major Transformation of Interstate 55 in Memphis

by: Debra Wood
Foundations are prepared for the I-55 flyover. (Photo courtesy of Tennessee Department of Transportation)
Foundations are prepared for the I-55 flyover. (Photo courtesy of Tennessee Department of Transportation)
Two Link-Belt cranes lift flyover beams into place for the Interstate 55 improvement project. (Photo courtesy of Bell & Associates)
Two Link-Belt cranes lift flyover beams into place for the Interstate 55 improvement project. (Photo courtesy of Bell & Associates)
Work progresses on the I-55 flyovers. (Photo courtesy of Tennessee Department of Transportation)
Work progresses on the I-55 flyovers. (Photo courtesy of Tennessee Department of Transportation)
The team builds a new bridge at Wisconsin Avenue over I-55. (Photo courtesy of Tennessee Department of Transportation)
The team builds a new bridge at Wisconsin Avenue over I-55. (Photo courtesy of Tennessee Department of Transportation)
A roundabout will replace the existing cloverleaf interchange. (Photo courtesy of Bell & Associates)
A roundabout will replace the existing cloverleaf interchange. (Photo courtesy of Bell & Associates)
Bell crews use two 110-ton Link-Belt cranes to lift flyover beams into place. (Photo courtesy of Bell & Associates)
Bell crews use two 110-ton Link-Belt cranes to lift flyover beams into place. (Photo courtesy of Bell & Associates)
A curved girder is placed on the I-55 flyover. (Photo courtesy of Bell & Associates)
A curved girder is placed on the I-55 flyover. (Photo courtesy of Bell & Associates)
Faced with an outdated interchange unable to safely handle increasing traffic loads, the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) has begun making improvements to Interstate 55 at E.H. Crump Boulevard in southwestern Memphis.

“The new alignment allows traffic to free flow on new through lanes directly from and to the Memphis Arkansas Bridge through flyovers, which will eliminate some of the bottleneck we have and provide route continuity along the I-55 corridor,” said Katie McGinnis, District Manager for TDOT in Memphis. “Eliminating the queue or bottleneck will drastically improve safety and reduce crashes.”

A major north-south transportation corridor, I-55 carries high volumes of local commuter, commercial, and through traffic in the Memphis area. TDOT has worked on this project for more than a decade.

Former TDOT Commissioner John Schroer, at that time, considered the interchange the worst in the state. But the department took under consideration regional concerns about closing the Memphis Arkansas Bridge and reconfigured the project. About 64,000 vehicles use this bridge to travel between the two states daily, including a significant number of trucks. By 2032, the department anticipates 85,000 vehicles will pass through the interchange.

TDOT attributes the interchange’s high crash history to frequent congestion, due to the original configuration creating backups on I-55. Most of the rear end and side swipe collisions occurred on the interstate where traffic backs up while trying to use the cloverleaf interchange. With the new configuration, travel times through the interchange should decrease dramatically.

A Collaborative Effort
The $141 million in improvements at I-55 and Crump Boulevard include constructing flyovers on the four-lane interstate to reduce conflicts and eliminate motorists’ use of low-speed ramps for through traffic. That traffic pattern resulted in backups as commercial vehicles had to merge, accelerate, and decelerate, McGinnis said.
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TDOT will also replace the existing cloverleaf interchange with a multilane roundabout and make repairs to the I-55 Memphis Arkansas Bridge, over the Mississippi River, in collaboration with the Arkansas Department of Transportation (ArDOT).

“It’s a rare project where we get to coordinate with another state,” said Nichole Lawrence, Community Relations Officer for TDOT. “Communication and early coordination were key when working with our neighbors.”

The team will build a new bridge at Wisconsin Avenue over I-55, due to grade changes. Pedestrians in the neighborhood will have a safer pathway on Alston Avenue and through the new roundabout.

TDOT anticipates the new roundabout will reduce crashes and relieve congestion in the area. Federal Highway Administration research has concluded that installing a roundabout can reduce fatal crashes by 90 percent.

Parsons of Chantilly, Virginia, designed the project in collaboration with TDOT. Fisher Arnold of Memphis provides construction engineering and inspection services.

Federal monies fund 90 percent of the project’s costs, with 10 percent coming from state coffers.

“There has been great teamwork on this project, with the contractor; TDOT; us [Fisher Arnold], the CEI; and ArDOT,” said John Pankey, Vice President of Fisher Arnold. “It’s been a fun project with the people we are working with. We have held public and community meetings.”

Interstate Overhaul
Bell & Associates Construction of Nashville, Tennessee, received the $110.6 million construction contract, agreeing to complete the work in 1,019 days. The company, founded in 1970, added a transportation team in 1990.

“There are a lot of different scopes on here, and there are a lot of major impacts,” said Grant Cruseturner, Senior Project Manager at Bell & Associates Construction. “It’s fun to have these activities on the scale they are. All of the scope is integral to the success of the project.”

Work began on this project in April 2022, starting with constructing noise walls in the French Fort community, which the team had to complete before starting pile driving. Project officials have coordinated with residents of the historic French Fort community, adjacent to the project.

“We have tried to keep that neighborhood abreast of what is going on,” Pankey said. “We have held multiple public meetings.”

The project has required a significant amount of earthwork. Bell has equipped all of its dozers and graders with GPS to help obtain the correct grade.

Cruseturner said that crews drove precast concrete piles to support the flyovers, with standard bent construction, and prefabricated steel girders, which accelerated the project. Once the southbound flyover completes, the team will switch all traffic to it and begin working on the northbound flyover.

“What makes this job fun and challenging is we have to maintain a reasonable flow of traffic through the I-55 corridor while building these massive new structures,” Cruseturner said. “We are working on relatively small chunks of real estate.”

The project takes place on a tight site, with a lot of activity taking place in a limited space. Moving equipment around and bringing deliveries of materials into the job site also have presented challenges. Bell is using two 110-ton Link-Belt cranes in tandem, plus other smaller cranes, on the project.

“It takes a lot of iron to do a project like this,” Cruseturner said. “It’s not your run of the mill equipment.”

The Memphis Arkansas Bridge, built in 1949, was closed for two weekends so the team could perform maintenance. TDOT allowed eight weekend closures of the bridge and two two-week closures.

“We always work with our local community and try to work around big events, such as the St. Jude marathon the first weekend of December,” Lawrence said.

Still ahead, crews will need to close the bridge as they resurface the deck and remove old concrete. Plans call for paving it with two inches of a polymer-modified concrete. All bridge work takes place from land, with no marine operation.

Multiple detours have occurred on local roads. The Bell team set the steel beams for the Wisconsin Bridge in May 2023, during a brief closure. Concrete pilings support the new structure, which has a concrete deck.

Once work starts on the northbound flyover, Bell’s crews will begin constructing the roundabout. It has multiple legs and, therefore, takes up a large amount of space. It requires about 150,000 cubic yards of dirt, excavated from other places at the job site and stockpiled, waiting for the roundabout portion of the project and its embankments to start. Crews will install that embankment to build the new ramps connecting the roundabout to and from I-55, Crump, Alston, and Riverside Drive.

Crews also are building 14 stretches of retaining walls, using a combination of methods, including cast-in-place concrete, mechanical stabilized earth walls, and soldier piles. Subcontractor Goettle of Cincinnati, Ohio, brought in a large, specialized machine to build the soldier piles, located up against the noise walls.

The project is on track to finish in the first quarter of 2025. It will “improve safety, relieve congestion,” Lawrence said. “There are many aspects that would make someone proud of this project.”

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