Highway 15 construction New Ulm (copy)

New Ulm residents and visitors to the city have seen variations of this picture, taken in June 2018, for more than two years. But starting Wednesday afternoon, drivers on Highways 14 and 15 are expected to return to a detour-free drive as the new bridge over the Minnesota River opens to traffic.

MANKATO — One week before Christmas, New Ulm residents and New Ulm visitors might suddenly feel merrier than they have in a couple of years.

“The date is still Wednesday,” said Rebecca Arndt, a spokesperson for the Minnesota Department of Transportation. “We’re shooting for afternoon.”

That’s when the Highway 14/15 bridge over the Minnesota River is set to open to traffic, ending two years of major detours in New Ulm.

The $32.5 million project began in the fall of 2017, but the detours began the following spring as a new interchange was constructed to replace the crash-prone intersection of Highways 14 and 15. The aging river bridge and a smaller adjacent bridge over Front Street were razed and removed to make way for replacements.

High water levels in the Minnesota River delayed work on building the 564-foot span that carries both highways over the river into New Ulm. About 8,600 vehicles a day were affected.

Both in traffic disruption and scope of construction, it was one of the biggest projects MnDOT’s District 7 has undertaken in recent years.

“It’s definitely up there as far as cost and impact,” Arndt said.

In addition to the bridge replacements and safer interchange, the project raised the roadway to make it less flood-prone, added a trail on the north side of the highway, and beautified the bridge and streetscapes to create a new gateway into New Ulm.

While Wednesday will be the end of the traffic impacts, the project will actually carry over into 2020. Once spring arrives, finishing work — brick, Kasota stone, paint and other aesthetic touches — will be added to the bridge. And $200,000 of landscaping will bring shrubs, trees and benches throughout the project area, along with a prairie-focused interpretive area near the trail on the northeastern side of the river bridge.

Mathiowetz Construction rejiggered the construction schedule when the high river-levels made it impossible to do work on the bridge, shifting focus to the interchange. That resulted in the interchange being completed well ahead of schedule on Aug. 19 and the bridge reopening a couple of months later than the original estimate of October.

A ceremony marking the completion of the project will be held in late spring or early summer after the finishing touches are in place and weather is more conducive to an outdoor ribbon-cutting event. Arndt, though, expects the rejoicing among drivers in New Ulm won’t wait past Wednesday afternoon.

“I think they will be celebrating,” she said.

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