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Hastings bridge on path to early finish

The construction of a new Highway 61 bridge in Hastings has faced some delays, but the project now could be finished by the end of 2013.

Drivers in Hastings get good news this week: The Highway 61 bridge over the Mississippi River will, if all goes as planned, be completed six months earlier than previous projections.

After high water and a state government shutdown prompted significant delays in the project, Minnesota Department of Transportation officials said the project wouldn't be complete until May 2014.

Now, it looks as though the bridge could be finished at the end of 2013.

The change is due in large part to an agreement worked out between the contractors, MnDOT, the Army Corps of Engineers and the shipping industry. The agreement was needed to shut down the river to barge traffic while the main span for the bridge is floated in place.

That span is being assembled now at the staging area near the lock and dam in Hastings.

At 545 feet, the span is the longest tied arch bridge with a free-standing rib in the western hemisphere.

"It's pretty impressive," said project manager Steve Kordosky as he surveyed the span construction Monday morning.

Barring any unforeseen delays, one lane of traffic in each direction will be routed onto the new bridge at the end of May in 2013, less than one year from now.

Once traffic is on the new bridge, the old bridge will be dismantled and crews will be able to construct the final piece of the project, the two northbound lanes over downtown Hastings. Crews can't build those now because the current bridge is in the way.

Now that the agreement to shut down the river is in place, Kordosky and Joel Myers from Lunda Construction can focus on getting that span moved from its current location into the river, and that will be no easy task.

When both steel arches and the floor system are assembled by the end of August, they will weigh 6.5 million pounds, or 3,250 tons. Then they will be moved in place over the span of about a week, likely between Aug. 25 and Sept. 5.

Slowly, the four corners of the span will be lifted, and the shoring towers that are holding the span in place right now will be disassembled. The main span will then be rolled down to the water's edge, a distance of about 200 feet, using a platform vehicle with a number of wheels below it.

That's when the agreement with the shipping industry takes effect. Lunda and Ames, the contractors for the project, will then shut down the river to barge traffic for 48 hours as they load the span on to enormous barges that are almost as long as a football field -- 260 feet long and 72 feet wide.

The span will be gently loaded on to the barges and the barges will then be towed out of the shipping channel where they will sit for a few days.

Meanwhile, all those barges heading upstream will be forced to take a 48-hour break, and it is figured that most will stay on Lake Pepin. Kordosky said he has heard that between 20 and 30 barges will be affected at that time of year.

Once the span is out of the way, shipping traffic will resume. It will be open for about 60 hours to allow those barges to get up to St. Paul, get loaded back up with grains and to come back through Hastings. Once they clear the lock and dam here on their way down south, the traffic will be shut down again and the span will be floated downstream.

The barges will make their way to the construction site and four massive jacks, mounted on the piers, will lift the span in place. The jacks are about five feet tall and about as big around as a garbage can. Each is capable of lifting 900 metric tons.

As he recounted all the steps that await the project, Kordosky simply said: "It's a daunting task."