Bridge is open

Elected officials and representatives of federal, state and local government offices prepare to cut a ceremonial ribbon on the Lewis and Clark Bridge over the Missouri River on Thursday.

Workers used 12,000 cubic yards of concrete, but it was oil that really built the new Lewis and Clark Bridge over the Missouri River south of Williston.

Dozens of dignitaries gathered at the south end of the bridge Thursday afternoon for a ribbon cutting to mark the completion of the $80 million project — the largest single infrastructure project in the history of the North Dakota Department of Transportation. Its completion marks the end of six years of construction to make U.S. Highway 85 four lanes from Watford City to Williston.

Well, almost.

The two west lanes of the bridge opened to traffic Thursday afternoon, but the old bridge, which was built in 1973, still needs to be taken down. That should take about a year, according to Tom Sorel, director of the NDDOT.

The old bridge needs to be dismantled so pieces don’t fall into the river, Sorel said.

“We can’t just blow it apart,” he said.

Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford, who was formerly the mayor of Watford City, spoke about the importance of the project to the western part of the state.

“Today’s opening of the Lewis and Clark Bridge marks a major milestone in the history of North Dakota’s transportation system,” he said.

When the old bridge was built, it handled about 1,000 vehicles a day. Now, though, about 10,000 vehicles a day use the structure. The new bridge can also handle larger trucks because of its wider, 12-foot lanes.

“This really needed to happen,” Sanford said.

One theme from nearly every speaker at the ribbon-cutting ceremony was how much the oil boom had affected the entire region, especially in terms of increased traffic. The expansion project, which included making Highway 85 four lanes from Watford City to Williston, bypasses around Watford City and Alexander and the bridge, cost the state $340 million and was planned to help alleviate traffic caused by the boom.

Sanford also pointed out that the bridge also has some unique features. Among them is a wildlife crossing designed specifically for moose, the first of its kind in the state.

The crossing also includes cutouts, so animals have the ability to move around below the bridge.

Sanford stressed the importance of infrastructure development to the U.S. economy, and said recent directives by the administration of President Donald Trump to speed approval of such projects are a good sign.

“[This bridge] is an example of how Americans can still build great things when regulation doesn’t get in the way of innovation,” he said.

Williston Mayor Howard Klug noted that the ribbon cutting was his second that day. Earlier Thursday morning, the city held a ceremony to mark the opening of its water treatment facility. All together, that meant $200 million of infrastructure projects were opened Thursday, he said.

There is somewhat of a connection between the water treatment facility and the bridge. After the old bridge comes down, a catwalk will be installed that will give workers access to the water intake for the Western Area Water Supply.

Also, because it’s a four-lane bridge with a divided median, repairs to the roadway won’t have to close the bridge. With the old bridge, any repairs meant creating a detour that sent drivers to Fairview, Montana, to cross the Missouri.

“We won’t have to do that anymore,” Klug said.

Because Highway 85 is part of the Theodore Roosevelt Expressway, which runs from Rapid City, South Dakota to the Canadian border, the project is good for the entire midwest, Klug said.

Gene Veeder, a McKenzie County Commissioner and president of the Theodore Roosevelt Expressway board, said that about 80 percent of the activity in the Bakken shale formation takes place within 75 miles of Highway 85. 

“It’s vital to our state and national economy,” he said.

Jon Cameron, an aide to Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., read a letter from the senator, who wasn’t able to attend the ceremony. Hoeven called the project a truly collaborative effort, which required work from federal, state and local governments. Its end goal, a reliable, robust transportation system, is worth it, though, Hoeven wrote.

“It was time and treasure well spent,” the senator wrote.

John Meagher, vice president of Johnson Bros., the contractor for the bridge project, said Thursday marked the culmination of a lot of hard work, and that he was very proud to have worked on the bridge project. 

“I can’t tell you how good it feels,” he said.

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