Barge backlog starts moving as Mississippi River reopens

Over 1,000 barges waiting to pass

File photo of the Hernando de Soto Bridge as viewed from the Mud Island River Park at Memphis. (Akrassel/iStock/Getty Images)

Chicago | Reuters — The Mississippi River reopened to vessel traffic near Memphis on Friday, the U.S. Coast Guard said, ending a shutdown of part of the waterway that caused a backlog of more than 1,000 barges carrying oil, corn and other goods.

The Coast Guard said the river is open to all vessel traffic without restrictions, after traffic was halted on Tuesday because of a fracture in the Hernando DeSoto Bridge that carries cars and trucks on Interstate 40 over the river.

The fracture and disruption in river shipments put a spotlight on infrastructure needs as President Joe Biden seeks congressional approval for a US$2.25 trillion infrastructure bill.

“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 Capt. Ryan Rhodes, captain of the Port of Memphis.

The reopening will begin to ease a jam of 62 vessels with 1,058 barges that were waiting to pass through the closed area, according to the Coast Guard.

Clearing the backlog may take close to 48 hours, said Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition, an agricultural industry group.

The river closure rattled the farm sector because global corn and soybean supplies are tight and prices are near eight-year highs due to strong demand.

Almost all grain barges must pass beneath the DeSoto bridge on their way to Gulf of Mexico export facilities near New Orleans after being loaded along the upper Mississippi, Ohio, Illinois or Missouri rivers, according to the coalition.

“It is my hope that this situation will further galvanize efforts to produce a comprehensive infrastructure investment strategy that addresses the needs of both urban and rural America,” Steenhoek said.

— Tom Polansek reports on agriculture and ag commodities for Reuters from Chicago.

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