Helena’s harbor and bridge could be refuge for barges and traffic blocked upriver in Memphis

I-40 bridge

HELENA-WEST HELENA, Ark. — The I-40 bridge shutdown is having a ripple effect on river commerce with barges unable to go north or south on the Mississippi River at Memphis.

That will certainly mean delays in delivering goods. It also could create a bottleneck for barges as far south as Helena-West Helena, Arkansas.

“Anything you can just about think of, we see and use on a daily basis, travels up and down this river,” said John Edwards, economic development director for the Helena Harbor.

Commodities like fertilizer will be late getting to Delta farmers as barge traffic comes to a halt.

“We’ve got farmers in the fields, farmers trying to get their crops planted and then preparing for what’s next to fertilize those crops,” Edwards said.

He calls the situation extremely critical and worries the barge backup could eventually reach the harbor at Helena.

“What I’m hoping for is that a solution will be reached that barge traffic will be able to resume while the repairs to the bridge are ongoing,” he said.

If needed, he said, barges could offload their time-sensitive cargo at one of Helena’s terminals.

“We’ve got the Helena bridge, so we can make the connection. Barges that need to be off loaded here, they can be trucked across the river to get to the eastern side of the country, so we have options during this tough time,” he said.

While river traffic here is normal for the time being, traffic on the Helena bridge is picking up as travelers and truckers seek an alternative to the gridlock nightmare at Memphis.

For many, the cantilever-style, two-lane bridge on Highway 49, which opened in 1961, is the best alternative.

Studies are underway looking into the possibility of turning the Helena bridge into a four-lane bridge. That bridge has 4,400 vehicles cross it daily, and about 20% are trucks. The bridge needs some deck patching to be done.

The Highway 49 bridge was inspected in December 2020. No noteworthy problems were discovered. There was an accident inspection in March after a minor barge strike, but nothing happened as a result.

ArDOT was working on the bridge when the I-40 fracture happened, and those crews were diverted.

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