A soaring bridge that will let drivers bypass Hoover Dam _ and steer clear of its security checkpoints and gawking tourists _ is set to open after nearly eight years and $240 million worth of work.
The 1,900-foot engineering wonder perched 890 feet above the Colorado River is expected to drastically cut travel time along the main route between Las Vegas and Phoenix, as motorists will no longer have to make their way across the dam's winding two-lane road at a snail's pace.
"I know that the Hoover Dam is one of the wonders of the world," U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said at a dedication ceremony Thursday. "I don't know who gives that designation, but I hope the bridge will become another wonder of the world."
LaHood and a delegation of government officials, including Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer and U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, heralded the span linking the Silver and Grand Canyon states as a crucial example of work being done nationwide to update the country's infrastructure.
LaHood said the bypass is one of 15,000 transportation projects that include updating 4,000 miles of road.
"Daring projects do not solve today's problems _ they support tomorrow's possibilities," he said.
The dedication gave Reid an opportunity to tout his work as the country's most powerful U.S. senator less than three weeks before Election Day. The Democrat planned to debate Republican candidate Sharron Angle on Thursday night as voters decide whether to afford him a fifth term.
"It's about as spectacular as you can get," Reid said of the bridge. You look over these stark mountains, the river below us, the great blue skies and the dam behind us _ it's wonderful."
The bridge, which officially opens next week, is named for former Nevada Gov. Mike O'Callaghan and Pat Tillman, the former NFL player who quit the Arizona Cardinals to join the Army Rangers and died under friendly fire in Afghanistan. Family members of O'Callaghan and Tillman watched the dedication ceremony from the span along with hundreds of construction workers and their families.
People snapped photos and walked along the bridge Thursday before the ceremony, many taking long pauses to stare at the 75-year-old dam below _ itself regarded as an engineering marvel.
It took five years and 21,000 workers to build the dam, and it cost $165 million. The last of its more than 5 million barrels of cement was poured in 1935.
Officials said the bridge contains some 16 million pounds of steel, 30,000 cubic yards of concrete and 2 million feet of cable _ enough to stretch well past Phoenix from Las Vegas. The $240 million price tag includes costs to build roads and smaller bridges leading to the picturesque span.
Cars previously were routed across Hoover Dam to cross the border between Arizona and Nevada, and checkpoints added after the 9/11 attacks often caused miles-long backups. Federal officials also heavily restricted the types of vehicles and cargo that could cross the dam, sending semis and other large vehicles an extra 23 miles through the resort town of Laughlin.
The new four-lane bridge allows travelers to bypass the dam much more quickly and with no checkpoints. The U.S. Department of Transportation estimates it will cut at least 30 minutes from the trip.
Brewer said the bridge will save both time and money by restoring commercial access.
"It also becomes a crucial part of a possible future interstate between Phoenix and Las Vegas," she said.
Those going to the dam will no longer be able to pass over it to cross the border by car, though it will remain open as a tourist attraction.
Visitors to the dam often can't help but turn and stare at the bridge, which federal officials say is the second-tallest bridge in the United States. The tallest is the Royal Gorge Bridge in Colorado.
The Mike O'CallaghanPat Tillman Memorial Bridge is the longest bridge built with concrete arches in the western hemisphere, according to the Transportation Department. The arches measure 1,060 feet.