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'Vital' river link reopens in area

Attendees of a dedication ceremony for the Old Highway 16 bridge connecting Chamberlain and Oacoma gather for a ribbon cutting Monday afternoon near the bridge, which recently underwent an extensive rehabilitation project. (Chris Huber/Republic)

CHAMBERLAIN -- The barricades blocking the road across the historic Chamberlain truss bridge are removed, permanently reopening the bridge to traffic and marking the end of a lengthy rehabilitation project.

April Reis, of the Chamberlain/Oacoma Area Chamber of Commerce, said it is a relief to have the bridge open.

"It was great to drive across the bridge this morning," Reis said when the bridge opened to traffic Friday. "It's going to make things a lot easier for people."

Chamberlain City Engineer Greg Powell is also relieved to see the project finally completed.

"It makes life easier for both communities," Powell said.

The Chamberlain truss bridge, which connects the city with Oacoma, is just up the Missouri River from the Interstate 90 crossing.

The almost $15 million rehabilitation of the 2,000-feet-long bridge began in July 2009. Care was taken to maintain the historic and distinctive look of the bridge, images of which have been used in the promotion of the area. Federal funds paid for about 80 percent of the project, with the remaining funding coming from the state.

During a rededication for the bridge Monday afternoon, South Dakota Department of Transportation Secretary Darin Bergquist spoke of the importance of the bridge to the region.

"Today is about the future and about how once again this bridge will link these two South Dakota communities and South Dakota as a whole from east to west," Bergquist said.

Oacoma Mayor Michael Schrieber also spoke of the importance of the distinctive-looking bridge.

"To have this main artery between Chamberlain and Oacoma cut off for almost two and a half years really made us realize how important this bridge was to everyday life, and it is great to have it open again," Schrieber said.

During the rededication ceremony, American Society of Civil Engineers History and Heritage Chairperson Steve Schelske presented a plaque to the state Department of Transportation rededicating the bridge as a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. The bridge was erected in 1925 and was one of five bridge spans at the time across the Missouri River in South Dakota.

Darin Slack, a bridge worker who lost his life during the recent project, was also recognized during Monday's ceremony.

Slack was a painter from Rainbow Inc. in Minneapolis who was injured and later died when he fell from an aerial lift while painting the bridge in June.

The bridge, which was contracted to Heavy Constructor Inc., of Rapid City, was scheduled to be finished by Aug. 1, but several delays pushed back completion.

Tammy Williams, Department of Transportation engineer for the Mitchell area, said the DOT will review why contractors were delayed.

"When you rebuild a bridge, it is like remodeling a house," she said. "When you get into a project, you might find some other things need to be fixed that you hadn't accounted for."

A late fee of $2,300 per day was built into the contract, but Williams said it's not likely that all of the 90-plus days will go against the contractor after a review is completed.

Rick Brandner, project engineer for the state Department of Transportation, said preparing the bridge to be painted and the painting itself took longer than expected, and that was the main cause of the delay.

According to Brandner, the rehab of the bridge involved replacing the bridge's deck, eastern pier and both abutments. The new deck was repaved, concrete on pier caps was replaced, new girders were installed on the approach bridges and the bridge was repainted.

While the renovation originally included plans to install a sidewalk on the bridge, the idea was rejected because of the cost.

"I'm happy with the way it turned out," Brander said. "We did an extensive amount of work."

Powell is also satisfied with the result of the project.

"The new paint makes the bridge look really nice, really attractive," Powell said. "The ride is really nice, and the lighting is much better than it used to be."

Reis said she and her chamber members are excited about the completion of the project.

"It's important to both communities," she said. "It's very vital to businesses and it's a symbol to both of our communities."

- The Daily Republic's Chris Huber contributed to this story.