With a spring to his step, Junior Salas became the first person to cross the Mississippi River on the new Interstate 35W bridge Saturday.

"I felt like a king," said Salas after crossing the remaining 7-foot gap on a metal catwalk.

Salas, the erection superintendent for Flatiron Construction, was one of more than 20 workers helping join the two remaining precast segments with the rest of the northbound portion of the bridge.

Hundreds of people watched from the nearby 10th Avenue Bridge as both segments -- each weighing 150 tons -- were lifted into place Saturday afternoon. They were joined with steel rods, cables and pressure, leaving just 7 feet between the ends of the bridge.

The gap will be poured and cast high above the river instead of being brought in, ready-made, from below. A powerful jack also was installed to push the two sides of the bridge a few inches farther apart. When the final segment is cured the two sides will be released, exerting pressure that will help hold everything in place.

That process is expected to begin next week and could take days before it is complete, said Kevin Gutknecht, a spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

"It's a small milestone for us, but there's still quite a bit of work left to do," said Mick Wilson, a superintendent from Flatiron, who has overseen work on the bridge since November of last year. "Just because that segment is done doesn't mean we're done."

The bridge is about 80 percent complete, said Jon Chiglo, MnDOT's project manager for the I-35W reconstruction. The bridge is expected to open to traffic in September, about 13 months after last year's collapse.

"This is just a nice milestone to achieve and goes to show we're making good progress on this project," Chiglo said. "We don't plan on celebrating just yet."

Flatiron's $234 million contract with the Department of Transportation calls for the bridge to be completed by Dec. 24, but it includes a $200,000-a-day incentive for each day that the bridge is finished before then, up to 100 days. If it finishes 100 days ahead of schedule, Flatiron could earn up to $27 million in incentives.

The new bridge is actually two bridges -- one for northbound traffic and one for southbound. The southbound bridge is expected to go through the same routine next week.

Rodrigo Zamith • 612-673-4895