Federal Highway Administrator Mary Peters said the reopening of the bridge set a national record for a project of that magnitude. Such a construction project usually takes six months, she said. She compared the quick completion to that of pulling a rabbit out of a hat.
"You folk have literally pulled a bridge out of a river in record time," Peters said.
On May 26, two barges hit the bridge, sending a 580-foot segment into the Arkansas River. Fourteen people died when their vehicles plunged into the water.
Traffic was rerouted as crews hurried to repair the bridge, which typically carried 20,000 vehicles per day.
Even as traffic resumes, there still is work to be completed. Stan Mediate, Gilbert area project manager, said crews will be working for another six to eight weeks on areas such as dry finishing and striping. During that time, one lane on each side will be closed.
The Federal Highway Administration was the first to provide funding to the project by donating $3 million. The entire project has cost about $30 million, twice that originally estimated, in part because of repairs to the alternate routes.
Despite the speed of the rebuilding effort, Gary Ridley, director of the Oklahoma Department of Transportation, said the safety of the bridge was never compromised. To prove his trust in the structure, Ridley rode in the first vehicle to cross the rebuilt bridge.
"We were put on our knees about 7:47 (a.m.) May 26, but we are certainly standing tall now," Ridley said.
He said the tragedy brought out the best in his and Gilbert's workers, helping them finish quickly.
Soon after Ridley and other government officials crossed the bridge Monday, state and Gilbert workers cheered as traffic flowed again. The eastbound lanes opened about 11 a.m., the westbound side less than 30 minutes later.
"This has made us eastern Oklahomans open for business, and that made us feel good," Ridley said. "I can't tell you how good (seeing the traffic resume) made me feel."
Ridley said the project was completed faster because government red tape and funding worries were removed from the process.