A news conference announcing the opening as well as a new memorial drew emotions from politicians and survivors.
As Minnesota's leaders stood on gleaming concrete and announced that the new Interstate 35W bridge would open Thursday morning, Chris Olson of White Bear Lake looked on, her clasped hands trembling just a bit.
"This is tough," she whispered. It was her first time on the new bridge.
Olson and her husband, Brent, who were among the survivors of the Aug. 1, 2007, bridge collapse, joined construction workers, engineers, most of the state's congressional delegation and even kids from the now-famous school bus at Monday's news conference on the approach to the new bridge.
Gov. Tim Pawlenty said the 10-lane bridge will open to traffic at 5 a.m. Thursday, with a full complement of state troopers slowly leading the way when the barricades come down. He and Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak also unveiled the design for a memorial to the 13 people who died in the collapse.
The 35W Remembrance Garden will be built at a cost of $1 million in the northeast part of Gold Medal Park, which became an unofficial gathering spot after the collapse. "It shall now become a permanent spot," said Tom Oslund, who has designed a memorial that includes 13 I-beams arranged in a circle.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters was among the many speakers to note the mixed mood of the day.
"These lanes will forever be sacred because of the 13 people who lost their lives here," she said. She offered high praise for the collaboration that led to the bridge being built in 11 months.
The federal government has contributed nearly $400 million toward rescue, recovery, cleanup and rebuilding efforts at the site.
Flatiron Constructors, the lead firm on the project, will fall short of getting the maximum bonus for finishing early. If the bridge had been "substantially complete" and open to traffic by the end of Monday -- 100 days before the Dec. 24 deadline -- Flatiron would have earned a $20 million bonus. It can still get $18 million in incentives if the bridge is done by Sept. 25 and is still eligible for another $7 million for finishing on or before Christmas Eve.
"If they don't get it done 100 days early and it's 98 or 97, that's still pretty heroic," said Minnesota Department of Transportation spokesman Kevin Gutknecht, who noted that the rainy weather over the weekend didn't do the project any favors.
The new concrete span includes high-tech sensors and back-up features that the steel truss bridge it replaces lacked. The $234 million bridge was fast-tracked to restore a traffic route that accounted for 140,000 trips a day.
The memorial will be an 81-foot square with a 65-foot circular medallion in the center. Construction will begin when $750,000 is raised; an additional $250,000 will be used for maintenance. The memorial campaign has already received several contributions, including $75,000 from Flatiron-Manson and $50,000 from Thrivent Financial, where bridge collapse victim Sherry Engebretsen worked.
Speakers on the bridge
Although there was no official ribbon-cutting, more than a dozen elected and appointed officials took to the podium to honor the victims and praise bridge workers, first responders and one another. A crew poured concrete on a median just a few dozen feet away. No other events are planned.
"Resiliency and tragedy go hand in hand," U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., told the crowd. "This is a revelation of the Minnesota spirit of people determined to come together. As we reflect on this tragedy, we celebrate this magnificent day."
U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., said public officials' jobs must be about "making sure the necessary investments throughout this country are made to keep our citizens safe."
Margaret Anderson Kelliher, speaker of the Minnesota House, alluded to some of the political wrangling that has taken place in Minnesota since the collapse.
"I want to say to the governor that it should be more or less ordinary that we tackle our problems in Minnesota the way we tackled this problem in a bipartisan fashion," she said.
Toward the end of the ceremony, the elected officials were joined by a couple of construction workers and three children from the school bus that was trapped when the bridge collapsed.
"I'd like to thank all the nice people who care about kids," said Mary Leonard, one of the kids. "It's nice to know that our community likes to help."
Returning to the scene
The Olsons stayed for all the speeches and lingered afterward. On the day of the collapse, they had driven their Jaguar onto the bridge as they headed to a Twins game -- the first part of celebrating their anniversary, which was the next day.
Monday, they drove that same Jaguar onto a newly paved stretch of freeway -- now with license plates reading 35W-C27, commemorating the name of the bridge and the giant number authorities spray-painted on their windshield after the collapse.
Going to the site "just gives me shivers," Chris Olson said, adding that she wasn't ready to fully cross the river on the bridge. The Olsons still feel anxious driving over any bridge, rolling their windows partway down when they cross a river.
Though not physically injured on the bridge, the Olsons came to the site Monday because it was another step toward trying to deal emotionally with the collapse.
"I guess I don't want to have it get the best of me," Brent Olson said. "But there's still 13 others out there with families that there's nothing they can do."