Damaged Bridge Halts 1,000 Barges Carrying Agricultural Exports

The Crack that Shut Down the Bridge      Image: TDOT, via CNBC screenshot

By Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer

In another sign of America’s aging and vulnerable infrastructure, last Thursday a crack in a bridge over the Mississippi river halted hundreds of cargo ships along the nation’s most significant route for agricultural exports, not to mention that the bridge was shut down to auto traffic causing huge backups on I-40 in Tennessee. Corn, soy, and other crops were stuck waiting to sail south, while ships carrying crude oil and steel imports were waiting to head north. This stoppage comes on the heels of a significant pipeline shutdown that has led to continuing gas shortages up and down the east coast. Now that the river is cleared for through traffic, experts are reevaluating the efficacy of such heavy reliance on Mississippi river transport. And the bridge will be closed to autos possibly for months.

Why This Matters: First the Colonial pipeline and now this — our nation’s infrastructure is in need of bolstering. The New Orleans Port region, where most export barges are heading, handled 47% of waterborne agricultural exports in 2017. Additionally, experts say that bride closings like this one may become more and more common. As of 2019, the U.S. has 47,000 structurally deficient bridges. While President Biden has included funding for 10,000 bridges in his infrastructure plan, many officials say that won’t be enough to solve the problem long-term. As the nation embarks on massive green infrastructure plans, our supply chain infrastructure must diversify as well.

Fording the River

“The river is the jugular for the export market in the Midwest for both corn and beans,” said Colin Hulse, a senior risk management consultant at StoneX in Kansas City. Corn futures fell after the block by the entire exchange limit of 40 cents or 5.6%. The river is a throughway for about 25% of the country’s imported steel, 13% of frozen poultry, and millions of barrels of crude oil. At its height, the backup stalled 1,058 barges at the chokepoint near Memphis, TN, further delaying deliveries already late due to COVID-19 complications.

Although water traffic has now been cleared, the bridge remains closed to vehicles, which the Arkansas Trucking Association estimates could cost the trucking industry $2.4 million a day. The bridge typically carries 50,000 vehicles each day, including 12,500 trucks. The average travel time from Memphis to Arkansas via the bridge was previously 8 minutes. Now, interstate travel takes an average of 84 minutes. “Even if you’re looking at 6-8 weeks, that’s an incredible expenditure that the industry can’t simply absorb,” said Arkansas Trucking Association President Shannon Newton.

Traffic beneath the six-lane I-40 bridge was halted due to a crack discovered in one of the bridge’s steel supporting beams. The crack traces back to two years ago when a video taken by an inspector observed damage in the same part of the bridge. For many cities with crumbling bridge infrastructure, federal money can’t come soon enough. “This bridge will get fixed. It won’t wait for money,” said Paul Degges, Chief Engineer with the Tennessee Department of Transportation.

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