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Mississippi River traffic flowing again

Raymond Gehman / Getty Images ms-river-barge-hernando-desoto-bridge-GettyImages-528763136.jpg
Coast Guard lifts restrictions on Lower Mississippi River near I-40 bridge.

The Mississippi River is open again. Early Friday, May 14, the U.S. Coast Guard lifted restrictions on maritime traffic on the Lower Mississippi. The move reopened the waterway to all vessel traffic following a three-day closure.

“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 Coast Guard Captain Ryan Rhodes.

The river had been closed to traffic since Tuesday, May 11, when a routine inspection of the Interstate 40 Bridge at Memphis revealed a fracture in one of the bridge’s support beams. The bridge was immediately closed to vehicular traffic. River passage was halted, too.

As of Friday, there were 62 vessels and 1,058 barges in the queue. That includes northbound and southbound traffic, according to Petty Officer Carlos Galarza.

“We are trying to get those vessels moving as quickly and safely as possible,” said Galarza. He did not have an estimate of how soon the backlog of river traffic would be cleared.

By 10:30 a.m. the first barge was passing under the I-40 bridge, according to a video shared on Twitter by Tennessee Department of Transportation spokesperson Nichole Lawrence.

The pause in barge traffic comes as supply chains are already stretched thin, particularly in agriculture where producers are reporting difficulties in obtaining farm chemicals, fertilizer and other supplies. Shutting down a primary transportation artery only added insult to injury.

“The reopening of the waterway is good news for everyone and will certainly ease transportation concerns, but traffic between Arkansas and Tennessee will be a nightmare for a while, and that’s the bigger supply chain issue in my mind,” said Aaron Smith, associate professor of agricultural economics with the University of Tennessee.

The I-40 Bridge remains closed indefinitely to vehicular traffic.

Grain prices, particularly corn, fell on May 13, which some attributed to the closure of the bridge and Mississippi River traffic. But Smith said the temporary closure of the waterways was not the only factor affecting prices.

“There was a little bit of fear of transportation issues Thursday, but the price decline is a combination of several factors,” Smith said. “USDA’s World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates (WASDE) report came out on May 12, which indicated ending stocks may not be as tight as anticipated. And of course, with such high commodity prices, we typically start to see an effect on demand.”

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