• Article by: JIM FOTI , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 19, 2008 - 12:03 AM

Drivers and passengers waved at each other through windows and sunroofs as they cheered and snapped photos with cell phones and digital cameras.

Ten minutes before 4 a.m. Thursday, Richard Kleinschmidt had second thoughts.

His alarm clock had just gone off, and as a retiree, the north Minneapolis man didn't really have to get up if he didn't feel like it.

But the new Interstate 35W bridge was calling.

It was a call heard by hundreds of motorists who came for the predawn opening of the snazzy replacement for the bridge that fell last August.

"It was a chance to be part of something," Kleinschmidt said.

It really was something. Honking their horns and stirring up a haze of post-construction dust, drivers geared up a few minutes after 5 a.m.

Kleinschmidt and some other motorcycle riders he didn't know ended up at the front of the pack at the north end of the bridge. It was a fitting picture. The American flag that he normally attached to his sailboat turned out to fit perfectly into a hole on the sidecar of his customized Suzuki.

Ahead of him were large maintenance trucks from the Minnesota Department of Transportation, each with safety bumpers to keep drivers from getting ahead of the ceremony. In front of the trucks, ready to lead the way across the bridge, were vehicles from agencies that sent first responders on Aug. 1, 2007.

Authorities didn't let drivers line up for the crossing until about 4:45 a.m. for fear of major backups. "On city streets they've been queuing up all night," said Lt. Mark Peterson of the State Patrol.

At the signal, the two processions -- one from the south end of the bridge, one from the north -- started moving.

Vehicles coming from the south were the first to make it across the 10-lane bridge, bathed in the bluish glow of its LED overhead lights.

Drivers and passengers waved at each other through windows and sunroofs as they cheered and snapped photos with cell phones and digital cameras.

The daily commuter

"I've been excited for this," said Puneet Vedi, of New Brighton. Not excited enough to get on the road before dawn, but a bit after 8 a.m., he joined the normal rush hour and headed to his job at a small architectural office near the south end of the bridge.

Since the bridge collapse, Vedi's daily detour had taken him through the University of Minnesota campus and across the Washington Avenue Bridge. That added 15 minutes to his drive each way.

"I've always been fascinated by bridges and roads," Vedi said. He had checked out the bridge from various vantage points. He likes the look of the bridge and the way the open railings offer better views of downtown.

The new bridge is significantly wider than the old one, so many drivers spent their first crossings figuring out which lane they needed to be in.

"It seems like I've come back to Minneapolis for the first time in many years," he said.

Conquered fears

Lola Kjenstad said last fall that she didn't want to cross the new bridge. She had made it across the old one just before it collapsed.

But after a year of getting up an hour early and spending an extra 20 minutes in the car each way between her home in East Bethel and her job as a legal secretary in downtown Minneapolis, her fears faded.

"As the time grows nearer, I've said, 'Oh, for silly. You're a grown woman,'" she said. "And now I'm getting excited. I'm just so glad it's done."

As she crossed the bridge Thursday morning, a twinge of superstition and nerves had her biting down on the tip of her index finger until she exited at Washington Avenue. "I ruined my manicure,'' Kjenstad said.

"What I didn't anticipate was how low that right railing was going to be. You could see right over it,'' she said. "I just wish it was a little bit higher. It's very disconcerting. I don't want to look at the water."

But then she laughed at what she had just said and added, "I know the bridge is safe."

Watching the construction of the bridge from 40 floors up in the office tower where she works, Kjenstad was pleased with the span's clean, simple lines.

"I'm so happy it's back,'' she said. "It's getting life back to normal."

But it may take time getting used to it all.

On her second trip across the bridge as she headed home, Kjenstad couldn't help but bite down again on the tip of her index finger. And when the river was behind her, she took her hands off the steering wheel to clap.

"Oh yeah,'' she said.

Are we there yet?

Even though the main span is open to traffic, the project is not yet "substantially complete," said John Chiglo, MnDOT project manager for the bridge. That means that the contractors' bonuses for finishing early can't yet be determined. Oh, and some lanes will be closed this weekend to help crews finish.

But on Thursday, traffic across the bridge flowed smoothly throughout much of the day. "It can handle a lot more traffic," said Don Zenanko, transportation specialist with the Regional Transportation Management Center. It will just take some time as people get into new routines, he said.

For the first few days, the bridge will be a novelty. "People are taking time looking at the sculptures and the lighting,'' Zenanko said.

Some of the new lane changes took some people by surprise as they exited or entered, forcing some to weave across two lanes of traffic. Despite some confusion, there were no accidents reported on the bridge.

As commuters reestablish their old routes across the bridge, rush-hour traffic congestion will be pinched in some places and relieved in others. Hwy. 280 between Hwy. 36 and Interstate 94, which frequently was bogged down after the bridge went down, flowed more freely Thursday, Zenanko said.

But commuters stacked up on Washington Avenue as they waited to get on the north ramp to Interstate 35W. Eventually, more and more people will find their way back to I-35, Zenanko said.

"You'll start seeing more and more congestion down that corridor,'' he said. "You add snow, rain, a Vikings or a Twins game, and who knows what will happen. But we'll deal with whatever comes."

Staff writer Mary Lynn Smith contributed to this report. Jim Foti • 612-673-4491

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