Thousands of vehicles to roll across new bridge today

Rex Fleming, project engineer for the Kansas Turnpike, stands on a new Kansas River bridge that is expected to welcome traffic today. He said traffic heading west would move onto the bridge when there’s a break in the weather.

After spending nearly $60 million, working for more than 16 months and — under light rain Wednesday afternoon — watching the final squeeze of sealant into holes securing one last expansion joint, Rex Fleming is ready to steer 15,000 vehicles onto the Kansas Turnpike’s newest bridge.

And he’s asking drivers to close their cell phones, ease off the accelerator and pay close attention while spanning the Kansas River today on new concrete for the first time since the turnpike opened more than a half century ago.

“It’ll be a change for people,” said Fleming, project engineer for the ongoing $130 million project, scheduled to be finished by the end of 2011. “The first time you come through something different, you have to be sure where you’re at. But over time, it will become natural.”

Here’s the schedule for traffic changes that will start a mile east of Exit 204 and extend a half mile west of Exit 202:

• Westbound traffic will be squeezed to one lane today, and steered onto the new bridge. Two lanes will be open by the weekend, in time for fans to arrive for the Kansas University football game.

• On Monday, traffic heading east will be down to one lane, before being switched onto the new bridge — using two narrow lanes — by the end of the week.

The changes will remain in effect until the end of next year, when a second new Kansas River bridge is scheduled to be finished.