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Bridge closure suspends Mississippi River traffic

Ed Metz/Hemera/Thinkstock grain barges
Almost every barge along the Upper Mississippi, Ohio, Illinois, or Missouri rivers must pass underneath bridge.

The Hernando de Soto Bridge that carries Interstate 40 across the Mississippi River between Memphis, Tennessee, and West Memphis, Arkansas is closed indefinitely after a bridge inspector discovered a significant fracture earlier this week, Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition, reported Wednesday. The crack, which is located on a beam essential to the bridge’s structural integrity, was identified during a routine inspection that occurs every two years, he said.

In addition to the suspension of vehicular traffic across the bridge, Steenhoek said the closure has resulted in a temporary suspension of barge traffic passing underneath the bridge.

An update from the U.S. Coast Guard on Thursday afternoon reported that 44 vessels with 709 barges were being delayed due to the suspension of barge traffic. Steenhoek said those 709 barges were likely a mix of a variety of goods and commodities.

The Arkansas Department of Transportation (ARDOT) and the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) share responsibility for the bridge and are working together to safely repair and reopen the bridge.

“The fracture is a result of wear-and-tear,” shared ARDOT assistant chief engineer of operations Steve Frisbee. “We are taking extra precautions and inspecting the rest of the bridge for problematic damage while it is closed to traffic.”

TDOT chief engineer Paul Degges said the repairs could take weeks, possibly months.

“Even simple solutions such as welding a repair into place is more complicated with this bridge due to its size and that it’s over water,” Frisbee explained.

Steenhoek said, “It remains to be seen when barge traffic will be allowed to resume, but any suspension of traffic – even temporarily – on the Mississippi River is most unwelcome to U.S. agriculture. Almost every barge loaded with soybeans, corn, or other agricultural commodities 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.”

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, barge shipments of grain and soybeans during the week ending May 8 (the most recent data) were 50% greater than the previous week and 18% higher than the same period last year. More specifically, USDA reported that 982,000 short tons of grain and soybeans transited Lock and Dam #27 on the Mississippi River (848,000 short tons) and Olmsted Lock and Dam on the Ohio River (134,000 short tons). Eighty-four percent (825,000 short tons or 29 million bushels) of that volume was corn. Thirteen percent (126,000 short tons or 4.2 million bushels) of that volume was 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,” explained Steenhoek. “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.” 

As revealed by the USDA data, Steenhoek said corn will particularly bear more of the brunt of the situation given U.S. soybeans are primarily exported between September and February.

Steenhoek explained that 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.”

Depending on how long the barge traffic suspension lasts, he expects to see a shift from barge to rail (and trucking, to a lesser extent), which will put upward pressure on rail rates. This will also impact the profitability of agriculture, he added.

Supply chain under tremendous stress

Steenhoek said it is important to regard the bridge situation 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 (restaurants, travel, entertainment, etc.) to goods has imposed historic demand on manufacturing and production and the supply chain that accommodates them. Every link (ports, railroads, trucking, maritime shipping, etc.) in the supply chain is under stress.”

Consequently, a shutdown or delay in the supply chain can easily compound challenges, he noted.

Steenhoek relayed that the bridge crack has also brought concerns to the forefront about the state of the nation’s bridges, especially in rural areas. “The number of structurally deficient bridges in rural America affirms this concern.”

Still, he said, “nothing motivates like a catastrophe.”

“We all are thankful an observant bridge inspector identified a significant problem before any injuries or loss of life occurred. Nonetheless, it is my hope that this specific occurrence will motivate our nation’s leaders to agree to a strategy for improving our infrastructure. A bipartisan win is available to the President and Congress. I hope they decide to embrace it.”

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