As Gov. Dave Heineman would make the trek up U.S. Highway 77 from Lincoln to Fremont, he often wondered when the new bridge crossing the Platte River would be completed.
State Sen. Charlie Janssen, a Fremont native who commutes daily to Lincoln would pray as he crossed the decaying 1950s structure.
The sentiments of those elected officials echo that of much of the motoring public in recent years. But with the opening of the two lanes of the new U.S. 77 Platte River bridge July 18, and an official dedication of the span Wednesday, motorists will likely enjoy a smooth river crossing for years to come.
A ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new 1,400 foot, four-lane bridge was attended by local, state and federal officials, as well as more than 100 members of the public. The bridge is the fourth such incarnation to span the Platte River between Dodge and Saunders County. The first, popularly known as the Wagon Bridge, was built in 1871 and destroyed in 1912. The most recent bridge to be retired was constructed in 1955.
During the ceremony Heineman told those gathered the new $16 million bridge is important not only for Dodge and Saunders counties, the cities of Fremont and Wahoo, but for the entire state of Nebraska.
“As most of you know we’ve needed this bridge for a long, long time. It carries about 9,000 vehicles on it a day,” Heineman said. “There’s no question about how important roads are. They’re our link relative to economic development and business activity for the entire state. And where we have good roads we’re going to have good economic development, and that’s why this is so important.”
Heineman said the bridge is a reflection of the state’s values and commitment to fiscally responsible growth.
“As America struggles, Nebraska is on the move,” he said. “You’ve seen the last few days talk about cities going bankrupt all across America. That’s not happening in Nebraska and it’s not going to happen.
“We have one of the lowest unemployment rates in America,” the governor added. “We have good jobs, good schools, safe communities, affordable homes and an unmatched quality of life. This project is a perfect example of the cooperation and collaboration in community after community all across the state to get projects done like this.”
Jerry Rinne, chairman of the Fremont Area Chamber of Commerce, said the bridge’s benefits extend beyond personal convenience, it serves as a connection of people and commerce that dates back to the counties’ early days.
“With completion of this part of the Platte River project we’re celebrating the connection between Dodge and Saunders County that dates to the middle of the 19th century,” Rinne said. “Pioneers first forded the Platte River on horses and then wagons, putting themselves and their cargo in dangers of shifting sand and strong currents.”
Fremont Mayor Scott Getzschman said the world has changed since the first bridge spanning the Platte River was constructed, but the basic need remains.
“A lot has happened since 1871, however one thing has not changed,” Getzschman said. “The importance of this bridge to the economic stability of Dodge and Saunders County and the entire eastern Nebraska corridor. It’s just as vital today as it was then.”
Rinne read a letter on behalf of U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry.
“The new bridge improves public safety, helps improve the flow of traffic and commerce and further strengthens the ties between Dodge and Saunders County. This long term investment will benefit area residents and Nebraskans for generations to come.”
Following an invocation by Fremont Area Medical Center Chaplin Scott Jensen, State Sen. Charlie Janssen joke that he prayed many times as he crossed the old '50s era bridge. Janssen said when he first ran for office in 2008 the bridge was a main topic of his campaign. Since joining the Legislature, he said, it has remained among his top priorities in Lincoln.
Randy Peters, director of the Nebraska Department of Roads, said an asset as great at the U.S. 77 bridge is created twice, by the men and women who do the physical labor to construct the bridge, but first by the stakeholders and public officials who have to work to get to the initial “yes.” A task that was not for the faint of heart.
Peters said the bridge’s construction is noteworthy for a number of reasons.
“This is proud day for us,” he said. “This bridge not only was built in two years, when we were looking at five initially, it’s also a new precedent for doing it in an environmentally sensitive way.”