Towboat Operator Says Arkansas River Hard to Navigate

September 4, 2013

A former chairman of the Arkansas Waterways Commission says it is difficult for towboat operators to navigate past Little Rock because of the way a number of bridges are configured.

Mike Metzler, a towboat captain who helped wrangle runaway barges after two hit bridges Aug. 23, told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in a story published Monday that some tows have their stern below one bridge while the bow is beneath another, and that it’s the skill of the pilots that prevent more accidents from happening.

“It’s not because it’s not dangerous,” Metzler said. “It’s definitely a tight fit.”

State police closed the Interstate 30 bridge for about an hour after the accident while a bridge inspector from the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department investigated. The all-clear was given when the inspector determined barges had struck only cylindrical berms in front of piers below I-30 and a pedestrian bridge near the Clinton Presidential Library.

Six bridges cross the Arkansas River between downtown Little Rock and North Little Rock = three for vehicles, two for pedestrians and one for trains. Five are very near one another.

Emergency responders said six of 12 barges in a tow being pushed by the MV Midland became loose Aug. 23 and that two broke free and struck the pier protection devices, concrete-capped metal cylinders filled with rock and gravel. The U.S. Coast Guard is investigating. A report could be complete in about six months.

Most of the downtown bridges have navigation channels 300 feet wide but the 55-year-old Interstate 30 bridge is considered to have an actual navigable width of 174.5 feet, said Danny Straessle, a highway department spokesman.

Employees with the highway department’s heavy bridge division who viewed the contact sites Monday were confident that the bridges are safe and that the protective cells that surround the bridges’ piers are not in need of repair.

The bridge is scheduled to be widened within the next 10 years at a cost of about $300 million but not have its piers moved.

“The only way you’re going to do anything for the navigation channel is a full replacement,” said Randy Ort, another highway department spokesman.

The bridge opened to traffic in 1958 and carries 124,000 vehicles per day, according to Highway Department figures.

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