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Cracked Bridge Causes Shipping Delays on Mississippi

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The Tennessee Department of Transportation
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UPDATE: May 14, 11:30 a.m.: River traffic under the Hernando de Soto Bridge resumed this morning. More than 60 stalled vessels and 1,000 barges are now able to pass, though motorists will continue to be rerouted to the I-55 bridge for an indefinite time. 

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Mississippi River boats continue to pile up near Memphis as the Interstate-40 Hernando de Soto Bridge remains closed. It’s creating uncertainty for industries that use the iconic waterway to get their goods to foreign and domestic markets. 

Both car and river traffic were stopped Tuesday after inspectors found a large visible crack in one of the bridge’s steel support beams. Officials are currently using computer modeling to determine whether it’s safe enough for vessels to pass under it in the coming weeks or months. That’s how long the Tennessee Department of Transportation says it may take to repair the bridge. 

As cars and trucks are rerouted to the older I-55 bridge, hundreds of barges are stuck nearby, loaded with basic commodities ranging from exports such as grain, soybeans and corn to construction materials like sand, rock and metal.

Tracy Zea with the Waterways Council, a national group that advocates for improved maritime infrastructure, says about 430,000 tons of boat cargo come through this part of the river each day. 

“If you were to take that tonnage off the river and put it on the road, it would require 17,000 trucks,” he says.

Authorities are still working to tabulate the economic losses the multi-day closure is causing, he says, but one thing is for certain: they’re growing.   

“The longer this goes on and commerce cannot go forward or be transited, it’s going to have a big cost in the hundreds of thousands of dollars,” he says, adding that some northbound traffic was carrying fuel to replenish gas shortages caused by the cyber attack on Colonial Pipeline.   

Alan Barrett, a Memphis-based transportation analyst, says there’s a lack of good alternatives for boats to get around the impasse. 

“Each one of these barges holds 1,500 tons and so the railroads and the trucks, there’s just not enough of them to switch over that volume to that other mode of transportation,” he says.  

Supply chains, Barrett says, could really start to feel a crunch if product stalled north of Memphis doesn’t start reaching ports in Louisiana soon.

“The center Gulf is where about 60 percent of our grain is exported through so for everybody above [the bottleneck] in the upper Mississippi River, the Ohio River and the Illinois River, they can’t export anything at this point,” he says.