By Molly Murray
Five-year-old Oliver Townsend wasn't even born when state Sen. George H. Bunting Jr. started pushing state transportation officials for a new bridge over Indian River Inlet.
But Friday, the Rehoboth Beach youngster made history.
Oliver, grandson of state Rep. Pete Schwartzkopf, rode in the first car to drive across the new bridge, with Gov. Jack Markell at the wheel and Sen. Tom Carper riding shotgun.
Townsend was speechless when he stepped out mid-bridge to look around. "He was a little nervous," Schwartzkopf said. "But he was excited to be on top of the bridge."
The trip -- more than a decade in the making -- was at 12:10 p.m. on the southbound side of the new bridge. One southbound lane was opened to regular traffic a half-hour later.
Northbound traffic will continue to use the old bridge for the next several days. Transportation officials expect to open the other southbound lane to northbound drivers within a week, weather permitting.
There will be one northbound lane and one southbound lane -- all on the new bridge -- for the next several weeks. Once all traffic shifts to the new bridge, the old bridge will no longer carry traffic in either direction. The entire project is expected to be complete, with two lanes in each direction, in time for Memorial Day weekend.
The old bridge will be removed in sections over several months under a contract with George & Lynch.
The bridge project has had a troubled history, and Carper captured the significance of the moment earlier in the morning when he told the crowd what his grandparents always said: "If at first you don't succeed, try, try, try again."
The new bridge is the sixth to be built across the inlet -- though some might suggest it's bridge 6.5.
The oldest of the existing spans was built in 1965. When engineers discovered deep holes around its support pilings, crews stabilized them. But Bunting and other local officials worried about the longevity of the old bridge.
Ground was broken for a new bridge in 2004, but its design was altered to cut costs. In 2007, with approach work nearly complete, transportation officials abandoned one set of construction plans amid concerns the earthen approach walls were sliding toward the ocean. State officials claim the design was dangerously flawed and now are seeking more than $20 million in Superior Court from the engineering firm that did much of the design work.
Much of the work was removed, and the latest bridge was started from scratch in 2008. This new bridge cost $150 million and was designed and built by Skanska Southeast.
One key feature is that cable stays were used to avoid the use of support piers in the inlet. The new bridge is also farther west of the eroding beach at the north side of the inlet.
The new bridge is 2,600 feet long -- including the 950-foot stretch that crosses the open water of the inlet. The towers that hold the cable stays are 247 1/2 feet above sea level.
Bob Rose, senior vice president with Skanska Southeast, said it is the type of project that he and his employees will always remember. "You have pride in this project forever," he said. When you are traveling somewhere else, "you will drive 100 miles out of your way" just to come see it again.
Delaware officials see the new bridge as more than just an engineering masterpiece and a way to cut a 40-mile overland trip between Dewey Beach and Bethany Beach down to just 12 miles.
"This bridge is critical not just to our infrastructure," Carper said. "It's critical to our economy. ... We don't build bridges to nowhere. We build bridges to the future."
On Friday, as Bunting stood on the new bridge, he thought back to what it took to get to this day.
"There was a time I wondered if this would happen," he said. "We knew the huge importance of it -- in part for medical transport, emergency needs. It's the lifebread of the businesses in the area."
Also in the first vehicle to cross the bridge were state Secretary of Transportation Shailen Bhatt and state bridge engineer Doug Robb.
"Bridges are about connecting people and commerce," Markell said. "This new bridge helps move goods and services, Delawareans and visitors. It's one of the most important bridges in the state and a vital link for people driving to vacation destinations, businesses and jobs along the coast."