Hundreds of barges line up as Mississippi River remains closed near the bridge
Damage to the I-40 bridge over the Mississippi River in Memphis could take up to two months to repair, according to the chief engineer of the Tennessee Department of Transportation – and it could have major implications for inland shipping.
On Tuesday, an Arkansas Department of Transportation contractor discovered a major crack in one of the two beams that support the Tennessee-side span of the Hernando de Soto Bridge, a 47-year-old steel arch over the Mississippi.
Photos of the crack appear to show the two-foot-wide steel box girder broken almost in half. According to the Tennessee Department of Transportation, three of the four plates that make up the beam have completely separated and the final (lower) plate is partially torn.
After spotting the damage, the inspector called 911 urgently, asking for help to “immediately” close the bridge and clear all vehicles. The US Coast Guard also closed the river to all maritime traffic near the bridge as a precaution.
Impact of transport
In one fell swoop, the closure of the I-40 bridge shut down one of the region’s most vital long-haul trucking routes and the nation’s most important waterway. As of Thursday, more than 700 river barges and more than 40 vessels were in line on either side of the Coast Guard’s navigation restriction zone, and the number is expected to increase.
The shutdown comes at a key time for inland shipping: May is a peak season for corn shipments from Midwestern growers to export centers near the mouth of the Mississippi. This season is busier than usual, with high demand for US agricultural products in the world market and corn futures trading at prices well above the historical average.
Relief may not be immediate, according to Tennessee officials. “It will be at least several weeks before we can have a repair in place, probably six to eight weeks minimum,” Paul Degges, chief engineer for the Tennessee Department of Transportation, said speaking to CNN. “I hope we can get a rabbit out of a hat sooner, but public safety is most important.”