Hastings area residents are calling this moment in their history "A Tale of Two Bridges."

The community is celebrating the only year that the Hwy. 61 bridge over the Mississippi River will stand alongside a new bridge, put in place last fall. When construction crews complete the new bridge late this year, they will tear down the old one.

Last week, crews poured concrete for the deck on the main span of the new Hastings Bridge, marking a milestone in the final steps of the project, which has been two years in the making. The $120 million bridge is set to be completed by December. It will be 545 feet long, making it the longest free-standing tied-arch bridge in the western hemisphere.

Compared to the current two-lane bridge, the new one will allow for four lanes of traffic, along with a path for pedestrians and bikers.

Hastings is a "bridge community," says Hastings Mayor Paul Hicks, and the public has taken a great interest in the project. It has even adopted the "Tale of Two Bridges" theme for its community festival, Rivertown Days, this summer.

"Right now, I think people are really appreciating the fact that when we look at our landscape in Hastings, we see two bridges. And we know that it's a limited-time view only," said Hicks. "We're taking note of it. We know it's historic for our city."

Sometime in June, the new bridge will open to traffic — just two lanes at first, until crews finish constructing the approaches and entrances to the rest of the bridge, and finally tear down the old one.

The new bridge is made to last 100 years, said Kirsten Klein, Minnesota Department of Transporation (MnDOT) south metro public affairs coordinator.

"The whole benefit of the project is it enhances the mobility and the safety for the community and the region," said Klein. With the new bridge, "They should always be able to have flow that goes across so you're not backed up into Cottage Grove and you're not backed up into Hastings."

The bridge that's being replaced is the most heavily traveled two-lane bridge in the state, with approximately 33,000 vehicles using it each day, Hicks said.

"So this new bridge is very important to us," he said. "That infrastructure is important to our community to move people and goods."

The new bridge will feature a modern anti-icing system. Public parking will be added beneath the bridge, along with the addition of a public plaza south of Second Street. An art display showcasing the history of Hastings will be incorporated, and the project also includes a scenic overlook near Levee Park.

Access to the city, including all Hastings businesses, will remain open during the remainder of construction. The public can use the current bridge to reach the city.

'Its days were numbered'

The new bridge was constructed near the lock and dam, and crews floated the main span up the river and lifted it into place in September. The event drew thousands of spectators.

This is the third bridge to be built over the Mississippi River in Hastings.

Before the 35W bridge collapse in August 2007, Hicks had been in talks with MnDOT about a new bridge in Hastings.

"We did not envision the terrible tragedy of 35W, but once that occurred, and there was a re-examination of bridges in our state, we knew that our bridge would not fare well in that analysis," Hicks said. The bridge had old, rusted plates and concrete decking that was falling apart, "and so we knew that its days were numbered. After the examination following the tragedy, the Hastings bridge project "moved up quite significantly on the schedule," Hicks recalls.

"After the Minnesota Legislature passed the 2008 Transportation Funding Package, MnDOT was able to accelerate delivering the project by almost five years," states the MnDOT website's Hastings Bridge page.

The first bridge ever constructed in Hastings was what the community calls the "spiral bridge," now part of the city's logo. It was built in 1895 and cost $40,000. "It put Hastings on the map," Hicks said. "It made Hastings famous."

For the past two years and the remaining months of the project, Hicks gets the same questions: "How's the bridge coming along?" and "Is it going to be done on time?" he said.

"The interest is really high, and there is an excitement," Hicks said. "Bridges are important to Hastings, and being on the river, it's part of being a river community. That crossing there has always been important to us."