River traffic under the six-lane Hernando De Soto Bridge was shut down Tuesday after inspectors found a “significant fracture. (Photo: Shirley Jackson/The New Tri-State Defender)

by Adrian Sainz and Andrew DeMillo —

The U.S. Coast Guard said Friday that river traffic has reopened on the Mississippi River near Memphis, three days after it was closed when a crack was discovered in the Interstate 40 bridge that connects Tennessee and Arkansas.

More than 45 tug boats hauling about 700 barges had been idled along the river south and north of the bridge, waiting for clearance. Now they can cross under the Hernando De Soto Bridge, Petty Officer Carlos Galarza told The Associated Press.

Economic development officials had been concerned that an extended closure of river traffic could hurt the region’s economy and have ripple effects on the nation’s supply chain.

River traffic under the six-lane bridge was shut down Tuesday after inspectors found a “significant fracture” in one of two 900-foot (274-meter) horizontal steel beams that are crucial for the bridge’s integrity, said Lorie Tudor, director of the Arkansas Department of Transportation.

Engineers wanted to ensure the bridge could stand on its own before reopening river traffic.

The bridge’s surface will remain closed to vehicles indefinitely, with road traffic rerouted to Interstate 55 and the 71-year-old Memphis & Arkansas Bridge, about 3 miles (4.8 kilometers) south.

In an inspection for the 2020 National Bridge Inventory report, the Federal Highway Administration said the I-40 bridge checked out in fair condition overall, with all primary structure elements sound and only some minor cracks and chips in the overall structure. Its structural evaluation checked out “somewhat better than minimum adequacy to tolerate being left in place as is.”

However, height and width clearances for oversize vehicles were “basically intolerable requiring high priority of corrective action,” the inspectors found. Tennessee recommended “bridge deck replacement with only incidental widening.”

Arkansas transportation officials said the crack did not appear in the last inspection of the bridge, which occurred in September 2020. The bridge opened in 1973 and carries an average of about 50,000 vehicles a day, with about a quarter being trucks, Tennessee transportation officials said.

(DeMillo reported from Little Rock, Arkansas.)