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Bridge Investigation Continues as Boats Allowed to Pass Beneath

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Arkansas Department of Transportation
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Authorities now consider it safe to re-open a mile-long stretch of the Mississippi River near Memphis after a multi-day closure of the maritime passageway. In addition to suspending the movement of boats and barges on Tuesday, officials also cutoff Interstate 40 traffic on the Hernando de Soto bridge after inspectors found a visibly large crack in a steel support beam.

The U.S. Coast Guard greenlighted boats to start moving again Friday morning.

“There is no indication that the bridge is continuing to deteriorate,” the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) stated in a press release. “We went through an extensive bridge modeling program to be sure it was safe for river traffic.” 

However, the state agency said that they are working on a “redundant analysis before we make a final determination that the bridge is structurally stable.”

Cars and trucks are still being diverted to the older I-55 bridge, two miles to the south. 

Also on Friday, the Arkansas Department of Transportation (ADOT), which co-manages the bridge, said a crack in the support structure may have started forming more than two years ago. 

While reviewing their current investigation of the fracture, ADOT spokesperson Dave Parker says staff came across drone footage from a consulting firm’s inspection of the bridge’s cables in 2019.

“That drone video happened to capture an image of what looks to be evidence of damage in May of 2019 that’s in the same area as this break,” he says, noting that the consulting firm was not hired to do a “full blown inspection,” just examine the cables.

Now, the agency is looking into whether damage was identified during ADOT’s official inspection of the crossing in September of 2019.

“We’re going back again to see, was it noted? If so, how was it noted?,” Parker says. “If it was noted, was there any work done to address it?" 

 The agency does an annual evaluation. According to the Associated Press, a 2020 inspection report doesn’t mention a fracture.  

The return of commercial activity on the river came as a relief to industries that rely on the Mississippi to ferry their goods—such as grain, corn and soy—to market. Over 1,000 barges were caught in the bottleneck. 

“They ought to be able to get back on track,” says Alan Barrett, a Memphis-based transportation analyst. “This is more like a weather event now than something that stopped it for a couple weeks and really backed things up.” 

The Waterways Council says 430,000 tons of cargo pass by this part of the river on a typical day.

Meanwhile, TDOT is considering attaching steel rods to reinforce the bridge as a stopgap measure while the agency prepares a more permanent solution.