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Update-Mississippi River barge traffic to resume Friday, Coast Guard says

Industry expert says the cracked bridge highlights bigger issues.

The U.S. Coast Guard has reopened the Mississippi River Friday, following the closure of a cracked bridge on the Tennessee-Arkansas state line.

Captain Ryan Rhodes, U.S. Coast Guard Sector Commander, is reporting that the Mississippi River has reopened to barge traffic.

“As of 9:00 a.m. CT Friday, we’ve opened up the river to commerce on the water. At last count, there were 39 northbound vessels carrying 981 barges. There were 28 southbound vessels with 477 barges lined up,” Captain Rhodes told Successful Farming.

The U.S. Coast Guard will use their queue management working with the barge industry to make sure there is an orderly flow of vessels and prioritize traffic up and down the Mississippi River.

The TDOT conducted three separate analyses of the bridge with nothing on it.

“They (TDOT) determined that the bridge was stable enough for vessels to transit underneath the bridge,” Captain Rhodes says.

The closure of a Mississippi River bridge on the Tennessee-Arkansas state line sent the grain markets nosediving Thursday.

On Tuesday, a bridge inspector discovered a “significant fracture” that has indefinitely closed the Hernando de Soto Bridge that carries Interstate 40 across the Mississippi River between Memphis, Tennessee, and West Memphis, Arkansas.  

Mississippi River Bridge
U.S. Coast Guard

“The crack – located on a beam essential to the bridge’s structural integrity – was identified during a routine inspection that occurs every two years,” Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition stated in an email.
In addition to the suspension of vehicular traffic across the bridge, the closure has resulted in a temporary suspension of barge traffic passing underneath the bridge, Steenhoek says.  

“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 commodity along the Upper Mississippi, Ohio, Illinois, or Missouri rivers is destined for Gulf of Mexico export facilities near New Orleans and therefore must pass underneath the I-40 bridge,” Steenhoek stated. 

On Thursday, the CME Group’s farm markets fell sharply. At the close, soybean prices had plunged 58¢, corn hit its daily limit down of 40¢.

PJ Quaid, independent broker, says that the market is reacting negatively to the news of the Mississippi River bridge issue slowing barge traffic.

“The crack in the bridge has made moving grains a logistical nightmare. It has really thrown a wet blanket on the market and has the longs running for the exit,” Quaid says.  

Quaid added, “The government is not giving clear guidance.” 

On Wednesday, the Coast Guard announced that it had issued a waterway restriction to all vessel traffic on the Lower Mississippi River Tuesday near the I-40 bridge in Memphis, Tennessee.

The waterway restriction closed the river to all vessel traffic between mile marker 736 and mile marker 737 on the Lower Mississippi River and was put into place due to a crack discovered by the Arkansas Department of Transportation on the I-40 bridge near the center span.

According to the USDA, in the week ending May 1, 438 barges moved downriver destined for Gulf export facilities. Most of these barges were loaded in areas north of Memphis, the transportation expert says.  

“It is reasonable to assume hundreds of barges of U.S. grain will be negatively impacted by the closure depending on its duration. Because 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,” Steenhoek noted. 
Steenhoek added, “It is important to regard this 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 to 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. When a link in the supply chain – barge, in this case – experiences a shutdown or delay within the context of overly subscribed transportation network, challenges can easily compound – adding insult to injury.” 
Steenhoek says that the USDA reported 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). Of that total volume, 84% (825,000 short tons or 29 million bushels) is corn and 13% (126,000 short tons or 4.2 million bushels) are 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. 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,” Steenhoek says.  

If a single barge accommodates approximately 1,500 tons of grain or soybeans, delaying 982,000 short tons of grain and soybeans will amount to 655 barges, Steenhoek says.

Steenhoek believes that this week’s bridge incident affirms the number of structurally deficient bridges in rural America.    

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