The Coast Guard has reopened the Lower Mississippi River in the vicinity of the fractured Hernando de Soto Bridge in Memphis, Tenn., allowing a queue of vessels and barges to move beneath the bridge.
As of the morning of Friday, May 14, there were 62 vessels and 1,058 barges in queue. The Coast Guard lifted all restrictions to vessel 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,” said Coast Guard Capt. Ryan Rhodes, Captain of the Port of Memphis. “We appreciate the cooperative efforts of both the Tennessee and Arkansas Departments of Transportation, as well as maritime port partners, to ensure the safety of our waterway.”
The bridge remains closed to highway traffic.
The bridge, which opened in 1973, closed the afternoon of May 11, and marine traffic was halted between Mile 736 and 737. The closure came after Michael Baker International, a contractor for the Arkansas Department of Transportation, noticed a crack in a major structural beam on the first day of a routine inspection and called 911. The bridge carries highway traffic on Interstate 40 between Memphis and West Memphis, Ark., and is owned by both states, with them splitting inspection, maintenance and repair duties and sharing the costs.
The reopening of the river followed a round of phone calls between state transportation officials and the Coast Guard the morning of May 14.
Paul Degges, Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) chief engineer, said May 12 in a Tennessee Department of Transportation news conference that crews were working to determine whether the bridge could support its own weight without traffic on it, given the compromised steel beam.
“When we get the answer to that, we’ll be able to answer, ‘Can we reopen barge traffic?’” he said.
Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition, said based on his experience he expected it would take close to 48 hours to clear the queue of vessels and barges.
“This is obviously good news,” he said. “We look forward to seeing barge traffic on the Mississippi River back to normal conditions in the near future. “
He added that he hopes seeing the effect of the closure could serve to “further galvanize efforts to produce an infrastructure investment strategy that addresses the needs of both urban and rural America.”
Reopening the bridge to highway traffic could take quite a bit longer. For now, highway traffic in Memphis remains diverted onto the city’s only other river crossing, on I-55.
Arkansas Department of Transportation (ARDOT) Director Lorie Tudor called the crack a significant fracture in a steel beam crucial to the bridge’s structural integrity during ARDOT’s May 12 press conference.
“This fracture had the potential of becoming a catastrophic event that was prevented by our staff’s diligent efforts in managing our bridge inspection program,” she said.
Tudor said at the time that ARDOT was hopeful that both a short-term and long-term solution for repairs will be possible.
It was not immediately clear whether those repairs would be completed from beneath the bridge, in the river, or from on top, leaving open the potential for further river closures as plans for the repairs continue.
TDOT reported that three plates in a 2-foot-wide steel beam had separated by a fraction of an inch, and a fourth plate was cracked. ARDOT reported the bridge had last been inspected in September 2020. Although most bridges are inspected every two years, fracture-critical bridges are inspected on an annual basis.
Tennessee Commissioner of Transportation Clay Bright said officials had already sought and been granted permission from the Federal Highway Administration and U.S. Department of Transportation to move forward with an emergency contract for repairs.
Caption for photo: A crack in one of the main beams supporting the Hernando de Soto Bridge over the Lower Mississippi River has resulted in the closure of the bridge and the river for 1 mile in each direction. The bridge carries Interstate 40 between Memphis, Tenn., and West Memphis, Ark. (Photo courtesy of Tennessee Department of Transportation)