Willard Bridge opens; Commissioner Shelly Buhler is first to drive across

Shelly Buhler recalled Monday how uncomfortable she felt driving over the old Willard Bridge.

 

“I know I, for one, will not miss the hum of tires on those steel grates, nor the uneasiness while driving across during slick conditions,” the Shawnee County commissioner said at opening ceremonies for the bridge built to replace it.

Buhler, who represents the commission district involved, became the first person following Monday’s ceremony to drive over the new bridge across the Kansas River. She described it afterward as “sturdy and smooth.”

Buhler joined Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer and county public works and solid waste department director Tom Vlach in speaking at Monday’s event, which began just after noon. She then drove over the two-lane bridge, which includes a walkway, at 12:29 p.m.

Colyer was among about 40 people who walked across.

Between 250 and 300 people attended Monday’s ceremony, estimated Betty Greiner, the county’s administrative services director.

Skies were partly cloudy and temperatures in the middle 70s as participants gathered at the north end of the new bridge for a ceremony in which Buhler joined fellow commissioners Bob Archer and Kevin Cook in cutting the ribbon.

The project was completed three months early and about $6.6 million under budget, Vlach said.

“I could not imagine this project having gone any better,” he said.

The replacement bridge is roughly the same length as its predecessor, which is about 2,300 feet. The old bridge was built in 1955 and widened in 1983.

The new bridge has been constructed at a lower elevation. It is about 13 feet lower than the old bridge on its north end, about 5 feet lower toward the middle and roughly the same height at the south end.

The replacement bridge and its predecessor both stand almost 3 miles north of Interstate 70 on N.W. Carlson Road, the boundary between Shawnee and Wabaunsee counties. Wabaunsee County contributed several hundred thousand dollars to the replacement project, Vlach said.

Those present Monday also included Kansas Secretary of Transportation Richard Carlson; former Shawnee County commissioners Vic Miller and Mary Thomas; Wabaunsee County commissioners Jim Suber, Rodney Allen and Ervan Stueve; and staff members representing Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran and Congresswoman Lynn Jenkins.

Vlach went to the lectern first. He recalled the various steps toward replacing the old bridge that had been taken since 2007, when he became public works director and learned its safety was a “large, looming issue.”

After the bridge’s condition was found to have worsened in 2015, Vlach said he thought it was a “complete longshot” when he asked former KDOT transportation engineer Jerry Younger — who was also present Monday — if the state could provide Shawnee County a low-interest loan for the project.

But the state came through, loaning the county more than $8 million. Without the loan, Vlach said, “we would at least be a year behind where we are.”

Colyer said the project’s completion “shows the power of all of us working together here in Kansas.”

He joked about potential uses for the old bridge, including it being the site of a “great Fourth of July explosion” or being used as a launching pad for Topeka’s new Evel Knievel Museum.

Workers have begun to dismantle the old bridge, which will be imploded on a date that’s yet to be determined, Vlach told commissioners at their morning meeting Monday. The new bridge will be closed for roughly 30 minutes when the implosion takes place, he said.

Those in the audience Monday included Melvin Sage, mayor of the city of Willard, located just south of the bridge. The bridge is the only direct route between Willard and Rossville.

Sage said the bridge’s opening would greatly benefit his city’s residents because now they’ll be able to use it to go to Rossville to buy needed items rather than having to drive all the way to Topeka.

Also present was Bill Wagnon, professor of history emeritus at Washburn University, who said the place where the Willard Bridge crosses the Kansas River was a critical crossing for users of the Oregon Trail.

An estimated 300,000 immigrants, traders, gold hunters and missionaries used the 2,170-mile trail to travel between the Missouri River and the Pacific Ocean between 1840 and 1869.

Contact reporter Tim Hrenchir at (785) 295-1184 or @timhrenchir on Twitter.

PHOTOS: New Willard Bridge Dedication
 

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