- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 22, 2014

VAN BUREN, Ark. (AP) - Barge traffic on the Arkansas River will be held up into next week as crews repair a railroad bridge where two cables snapped, making it impossible for the structure to be raised, officials said Wednesday.

Arkansas & Missouri Railroad Police Chief Ron Sparks said repair work would begin in Crawford County on Thursday and hopes the channel will be passable by Monday or Tuesday.

“That doesn’t mean (the movable bridge section) is going to stay up,” Sparks said. But the span could be elevated long enough to allow backed up barges to pass through.

The cables on the bridge, built in 1969, failed late Monday night and titled the northern end of the structure that links Fort Smith with Van Buren. Engineers don’t know what caused them to snap, and Sparks said there could be a risk that the cables would break again. But the first priority is to stabilize the bridge so it doesn’t fall and hurt someone during the repair, Sparks said.

“This is such a fluid situation because the more you look into it, the more likely there are other things that got damaged that you don’t even see until you take the thing apart,” Sparks said. All of the cables that help lift and lower the bridge section will have to be removed and replaced, he said.

Heavy repair work is scheduled to start Saturday, presuming the cables come in on time and crews are able to get a barge, tugboat and crane in place, he said.

Officials met late Wednesday afternoon to develop the work plan, Sparks said after the meeting. Two more engineering firms are to come in and look at the structure, he said.

“It’s such a highly complicated piece of machinery, there’s so many working parts that until we get it all nailed down, we’re not really going to know with certainty … what happened,” Sparks said.

It’s possible that crews will be able to make the bridge level and restart rail traffic before the river is open again

Marty Shell with Five Rivers Distribution told the Southwest Times Record that the river is carrying outbound grain shipments and inbound fertilizer ahead of planting season.

“There’re probably seven or eight ports above that bridge that are virtually shut off until that bridge suspension rises,” Shell said, adding he’s confident traffic will resume soon.

The weather isn’t making the situation easier.

“It’s going to be 2 degrees tomorrow and that’s not going to help anything,” Sparks said, also noting he appreciates cargo companies’ patience.

“I know it’s very disruptive to their business,” he said.

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