Traffic on and below a major bridge over the Mississippi River near Memphis could be halted for several days or longer, causing significant disruptions to motorists and shipping, officials said on Wednesday.
Authorities in Arkansas and Tennessee, along with the U.S. Coast Guard, indefinitely stopped all traffic related to the Hernando de Soto Bridge on Interstate 40 after inspectors discovered a crack in the steel structure on Tuesday and Tennessee officials say repairs could take some time.
The bridge connects Memphis, Tenn., to West Memphis, Ark., and is a crucial waterway for barges transporting crops to export markets. Crews have begun emergency repairs.
Inspectors discovered the major fracture in a steel beam on the bottom truss that is crucial to the integrity of the bridge. Officials said it was found during a routine inspection.
Arkansas transportation director Lori Tudor said it had the potential to become a "catastrophic event," adding "the bridge was closed to vehicular traffic and the river was closed to barge traffic as a safety precaution."
Authorities say barge traffic can't resume unless engineers determine that the ridge can stand on its own despite the rusting crack. They say it could take a couple of weeks just to complete a full inspection of the nearly 50-year-old bridge.
Inspectors have to figure out whether bridge can hold its own weight and the weight of construction crews, according to the Associated Press.
"A timeline will be shared as soon as we have one," Tennessee transportation officials said in a statement on Wednesday.
Meantime, motorists must continue to use alternate routes.
The discovery comes as the Biden administration is seeking to reach a bipartisan deal on a multi-trillion dollar infrastructure bill that would raise taxes to revamp dilapidated roads and bridges among other programs.
"Let's see if we can get an agreement to kickstart this. And then fight over what's left and see if I can get it done without Republicans, if need be," President Joe Biden told MSNBC on Wednesday.
Labor Secretary Marty Walsh and the Second Gentlement Doug Emhoff were both in Memphis last week to promote the plan and garner support.
The Coast Guard says Mississippi river traffic is already backing up in both directions, with more than 400 barges awaiting passage, according to Reuters.
Lieutenant Mark Pipkin, a Coast Guard spokesman, told the wire service that there were 12 northbound vessels with 157 barges waiting to pass and another 16 vessels with 254 barges in the queue to go southbound. "The barges are carrying a mix of materials including crude oil and dry cargo like corn or rocks," Reuters said.