Mississippi River traffic reopened under damaged bridge

AP National News

A tugboat with a barge attached sits near a boat ramp at Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park, Wednesday, May 12, 2021, in Millington, Tenn. A crack in the Interstate 40 bridge linking Tennessee and Arkansas has shut down Mississippi River traffic near Memphis, forcing tugs that are hauling barges to wait until they receive clearance that it’s safe to pass under the closed bridge. (AP Photo/Adrian Sainz)

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — River traffic has reopened on the Mississippi River near Memphis, Tennessee, three days after it was closed when a crack was discovered in the Interstate 40 bridge that connects Tennessee and Arkansas, the U.S. Coast Guard said Friday.

The Arkansas Department of Transportation, meanwhile, said a video taken by an inspector two years ago found “significant rust and the beginning of a crack” in the same area as the fracture that prompted the bridge’s shutdown this week.

More than 60 tug boats hauling more than 1,000 barges were in line Friday to cross under the Hernando De Soto Bridge, the Coast Guard said.

Economic development officials had been concerned that an extended closure of river traffic could hurt the region’s economy and have ripple effects on the nation’s supply chain.

The bridge itself will remain closed to vehicles indefinitely, with road traffic rerouted to Interstate 55 and the 71-year-old Memphis & Arkansas Bridge, about 3 miles (5 kilometers) south.

River traffic under the six-lane bridge was shut down Tuesday after inspectors found a “significant fracture” in one of two 900-foot (274-meter) horizontal steel beams that are crucial for the bridge’s integrity, said Lorie Tudor, director of the Arkansas Department of Transportation.

Engineers wanted to ensure the bridge could stand on its own before reopening river traffic.

“Based on information provided to us by the Tennessee Department of Transportation, the Coast Guard has determined that transit under the I-40 bridge is safe for maritime traffic,” Coast Guard Capt. Ryan Rhodes, captain of the Port of Memphis, said in a statement.

The Arkansas Department of Transportation on Friday said an image captured by an inspector’s drone video in May 2019 showed evidence of damage on the lower side of the bridge, the same area as the crack that was discovered this week.

DOT spokesman Dave Parker said the damage was found by a consulting firm that was inspecting the bridge’s cables that year.

“ARDOT is now investigating to see if that damage was noted in a September 2019 inspection report and, if so, what actions were taken,” the agency said in a statement.

The bridge remained closed as negotiations intensified between the White House and a group of Republican senators over a potential infrastructure package. Democrats have said the shutdown highlights the urgent need for more infrastructure funding.

Republicans have called for a infrastructure plan with a smaller price tag than President Joe Biden’s and with a narrower definition of public works.

The Arkansas Trucking Association on Friday estimated the closure would cost the trucking industry at least $2.4 million a day because of the longer routes to cross the river. The group used data provided by the American Transportation Research Institute.

Arkansas Trucking Association President Shannon Newton said the trip on the I-40 bridge between the two states averaged eight minutes. Since the I-40 bridge closure, trips on the I-55 bridge being used as the closest alternate route have averaged 84 minutes.

“Even if you’re looking at 6-8 weeks, that’s an incredible expenditure that the industry can’t simply absorb,” Newton said.

Tennessee’s transportation department said there’s no indication the bridge is continuing to deteriorate and said designers were working on an interim repair plan that would rely on steel rods that would be attached to the bridge and span over the fractured section. Designers were also looking at the possibility of installing a steel plate to beef up the fractured section.

The interim plan would allow time for a new bridge component to be fabricated to replace the damaged section, the agency said.

In an inspection for the 2020 National Bridge Inventory report, the Federal Highway Administration said the I-40 bridge checked out in fair condition overall, with all primary structure elements sound and only some minor cracks and chips in the overall structure. Its structural evaluation checked out “somewhat better than minimum adequacy to tolerate being left in place as is.”

However, height and width clearances for oversize vehicles were “basically intolerable requiring high priority of corrective action,” the inspectors found. Tennessee recommended “bridge deck replacement with only incidental widening.”

Arkansas transportation officials said the crack did not appear in the last inspection of the bridge, which occurred in September 2020. The bridge opened in 1973 and carries an average of about 50,000 vehicles a day, with about a quarter being trucks, Tennessee transportation officials said.

Tug boats pushing barges could be seen passing under the bridge shortly after the Coast Guard’s announcement Friday. Some onlookers came to a riverside park to get a glimpse of the vessels.

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DeMillo reported from Little Rock, Arkansas.

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