Downtown Minneapolis commuters are in for a nice surprise as the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) on Thursday afternoon is expected to open a key ramp leading to southbound Interstate 35W.

The ramp from 10th Street and 4th Avenue S. to southbound I-35W has been closed since June 2018 and was not supposed to open for another two years. But MnDOT plans to open the ramp at 3 p.m. Thursday, said spokesman David Aeikens.

Drivers will encounter periodic short-term closures of the ramp as crews continue with the $239 million rebuilding of I-35W between 43rd Street and downtown Minneapolis.

Farther to the south, MnDOT plans to reopen the 40th Street pedestrian bridge in October, more than a year ahead of schedule, Aeikens said. Pedestrians and bicyclists will enjoy a wider crossing when the bridge reopens, Aeikens said.

The openings are the latest milestones MnDOT has reached on the Downtown-to-Crosstown project, which will continue until October 2021.

The ramp off 10th Street and 4th Avenue S. will be only a single lane when it reopens but will eventually expand to two lanes, Aeikens said. Opening at least one lane was a “high priority” for MnDOT, and the trio of contractors carrying out the massive construction project was able to make that happen, Aeikens said.

“We knew the importance of that exit out of downtown,” Aeikens said. While the ramp was closed, motorists trying to get to southbound I-35W had only two other ramps to use: off 4th Street by U.S. Bank Stadium and at Washington Avenue. “This opens things up a lot.”

The contractors — Lunda, Ames and Shafer construction companies — did not get a bonus for completing the work early. But their promise to get the ramp open before the October 2021 deadline helped them win the contract, Aeikens said.

A ramp from 12th Street to southbound I-35W will continue to be open for buses only to maintain a transit advantage, he said.

Overall, the four-year rebuilding project has moved past the halfway point, but major components need to be completed over the next two years. Those include construction of a transit station at Lake Street and ramps at 28th Street, completion of a flyover bridge over I-94 and rebuilding the northbound lanes north of Lake Street.

“We have made a lot of progress,” Aeikens said. “But we still have a lot of work to do.”