Mississippi River opened near Memphis under damaged bridge

Associated Press
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.

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) – The U.S. Coast Guard said Friday that 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.

More than 45 tug boats hauling about 700 barges had been idled along the river south and north of the bridge, waiting for clearance. Now they can cross under the Hernando De Soto Bridge, Petty Officer Carlos Galarza told The Associated Press. 

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.

River traffic under the six-lane bridge was shut down Tuesday after inspectors found a "significant fracture" in one of two 900-foot 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. 

The bridge's surface will remain closed to vehicles indefinitely, with road traffic rerouted to Interstate 55 and the 71-year-old Memphis & Arkansas Bridge, about 3 miles south.

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."

The Tennessee Department of Transportation shows a crack is in a steel beam on the Interstate 40 bridge, near Memphis, Tenn. The Tennessee Department of Transportation says the crack is in a 900-foot steel beam that provides stability for the Interstate 40 bridge that connects Arkansas and Tennessee over the Mississippi River. The bridge was closed Tuesday, May 11, 2021 after inspectors found the crack.

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.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in the week ending May 1, 438 barges moved down the riverway destined for Gulf export facilities, with the majority of those barges loaded north of Memphis.