By DOUG SCHMITZ
MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Barge traffic under the Hernando de Soto Bridge has been allowed to resume after a bridge inspector discovered a ‘significant fracture’ on May 11 that temporarily closed the bridge carrying Interstate 40 across the Mississippi River between Memphis, Tenn., and West Memphis, Ark. However, the bridge is still closed to vehicular 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 Ryan Rhodes, Coast Guard 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,” he added.
According to Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition in Ankeny, Iowa, however, “Vehicular traffic may remain suspended for quite a while.”
The crack – located on a beam essential to the bridge’s structural integrity – was identified during a routine inspection that occurs every two years.
Adel Abdelnaby, University of Memphis professor of civil engineering, told WREG News Channel 3 in Memphis, he contributed the crack to a design flaw in the bridge’s sagging ‘M’ shape.
Steenhoek said on May 12 there were 62 vessels with a total of 1,058 barges waiting to pass under the bridge.
“Almost every barge loaded with soybeans, corn, or other agricultural commodity along the Upper Mississippi, Ohio, Illinois, or Missouri Rivers are destined to Gulf of Mexico export facilities near New Orleans, and therefore must pass underneath the I-40 bridge,” he said.
According to the USDA, in the week ending May 1, 438 barges moved down river destined for Gulf export facilities, with most of these barges loaded in areas north of Memphis.
“It is reasonable to assume hundreds of barges of U.S. grain will be negatively impacted by the closure, depending on its duration,” Steenhoek said before the bridge was re-opened for barge traffic only last Friday.
“Because (80 percent of) U.S. soybeans are primarily exported between the months of September and February, other commodities, particularly corn, will bear more of the brunt of the barge traffic suspension, but soybeans will clearly be impacted as well,” he said.
He added, “A disruption in the supply chain is very analogous to squeezing a balloon – pressure can be alleviated in one area, but it will be augmented in another. International demand remains robust, but our ability to connect supply with demand has been compromised.”
He said the USDA also reported 982,000 short tons of grain and soybeans transited Lock and Dam #27 on the Mississippi River, and Olmsted Lock and Dam on the Ohio River.
Of that volume, he said 29 million bushels were corn, and 4.2 million bushels were soybeans.
“Those two locks are good links in the supply chain to monitor since most any volume going through those two locks will need to pass by Memphis to ultimately arrive at Gulf export terminals,” he said.
“They also represent the two main feeders – the Upper Mississippi River and the Ohio River – into the lower portions of the Mississippi River, which includes the Memphis area,” he added.
Before last Friday’s barge traffic re-opening, he said he expected to see a shift from barge to rail, (and trucking, to a lesser extent), which will put upward pressure on rail rates.
“This would clearly impact the profitability of agriculture, including the U.S. farmer,” he said.
He said it is important to regard the bridge closure – and resulting suspension of traffic – in the broader context of a national and global supply chain that is currently under tremendous stress.
“The seismic shift in consumer spending over the past 12-15 months from services (i.e., restaurants, travel, entertainment, etc.) to goods has imposed historic demand on manufacturing and production, and the supply chain that accommodates them.
“Every link (i.e., ports, railroads, trucking, maritime shipping, etc.) in the supply chain is under stress,” he added. “When a link in the supply chain – barge, in this case – experiences a shut down or delay within the context of (an) overly subscribed transportation network, challenges can easily compound – adding insult to injury.”
He said he also had another reaction to the news of the I-40 bridge closure.
“If we have such pronounced structural problems with the bridges that are a component of our interstate system – the flagship portion of our nation’s surface transportation system – then we clearly must have significant challenges with our local bridge inventory – especially in rural areas,” he said.
“The number of structurally deficient bridges in rural America affirms this concern,” he added. “As we move forward, it is my hope that this situation will further galvanize efforts to produce a comprehensive infrastructure investment strategy that addresses the needs of both urban and rural America,” he added.
The Tennessee Department of Transportation said the crack may have been there for a week before being spotted during the inspection.
But Abdelnaby said he thinks it may have been there longer, possibly a few weeks.
“So, this crack is very developed,” he said. “When I look at the crack, the crack doesn’t look to me like it’s new. The crack looks like the edges of the crack are worn. You see they are round; they are not sharp edges.”
The Tennessee Department of Transportation said they didn’t have a specific timeline for the bridge to re-open to vehicular traffic.